Member Spotlight: Christopher Pezzullo

October 19, 2017|3:47 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Christopher Pelluzzo, DO

Christopher Pezzullo, DO, is state health officer for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). A graduate of the University of New England College Of Osteopathic Medicine, Pezzullo has practiced medicine for more than 20 years as a pediatrician. Pezzullo previously served as the medical director of the division of population health at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and chief medical officer for University Health Care. Pezzullo’s clinical interests include developmental, behavioral, and integrative pediatrics. He and his family reside in Cape Elizabeth.

What was the experience, or motivating factor, that compelled you to become a state health official?

I kind of fell into the role. I was working at a university that had its own primary care practice when a job opened at the health department for a medical director in the division of population health. The role included chronic disease, as well as maternal and child health, which interested me because I had always been interested in public health as a pediatrician. When the director stepped down, she reached out to me and said that she was thinking about changing the model at the health department. Instead of having one director who is a physician that also handles operations, she proposed a dual model with a chief operating officer for operations and a state health officer for the clinical lead. I thought that was a brilliant idea!

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

Mary Mayhew, who was commissioner for DHHS until a couple of months ago. Working under her, I was always struck by her great care and attention to detail. She felt that data needed to drive decisions as opposed to opinion. It was such a great experience to work with someone who held you to such a high professional standard while also allowing you to be incredibly innovative.

What is your morning ritual?

I set my alarm for 5:45 a.m., although I often wake up a minute before the alarm goes off. I take a look at my phone and The New York Times to see what’s going on in the world, catch up on emails, then head downstairs and have a cup of coffee. I tend to eat the same thing every morning, which I call “protein bar in a bowl.” It is cashew butter, chia seeds, dates, dried cherries, and dark chocolate chips stirred together. I carpool with two other state officials, so I'm either picking them up or they're meeting me at the park and ride. We're on the way to Augusta by seven.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I go to the gym after work at least two days a week. My wife and I do yoga with a class every Monday night. I bike and run, and on the weekends, my wife and I like to kayak.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Maine is one of my favorite places to vacation despite the fact that I live here. Summers in Maine are truly amazing. It’s sunny, with temperatures in the low-80s. The lakes are warm and swimmable. A couple of lakes we especially like are Great Pond and Toddy Pond. However, my favorite place to vacation—based on frequency—would have to be Italy. I’m Italian by ethnicity, and both my wife and I feel that life just slows down when we’re there. The food seems like what it should be to keep you healthy. People seem to interact with each other really well. And of course the scenery is amazing.

What are your favorite hobbies?

Besides exercising, I would say gardening. I have two good friend with whom I share plots at the local community garden. I love being in the garden in the summer. Time just melts away.

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic, and how are you supporting the 2017 ASTHO President’s Challenge?

We’re doing a lot. Working with the governor's office, we have an internal work group called the Opiate Reform Council, which includes members from the bureau of health, MaineCare, the commissioner's office, the substance abuse and mental health office, as well as the office of child and family services. In addition, we have worked with the governor's office to create a comprehensive law around opioids, and this year we hosted an opioid conference to publicize and start to change the culture around opioid use, as well as help prescribers and dispensers meet CMA requirements.

Similar to Vermont and Rhode Island, we have started, through our Medicaid program, an opioid health home where there is access to services such as physical health, behavioral health, addiction counseling, care coordination, recovery coaching, as well as nurses trained in addiction. Additionally, we enhanced our 211 service so that professionals are trained to connect people with treatment, and the office of child and family services is piloting a program that connects families with a high risk for substance use to an intensive outpatient program and positive parenting program.

How has public health changed during your time in the field?

The political and financial climate has required that public health become a more public-private partnership. When partnerships exist with stakeholders from public health groups working with businesses, communities, and schools, you get more buy-in. This, I think, will ultimately make public health more sustainable.

What do you love the most about the public health work you do?

The ability to innovate. The financial limitations on public health allow you to partner with stakeholders in a really creative way. You learn a lot about what stakeholders are thinking, as well as the barriers to improving health in their communities. Public health lives in all of our backyards and we can all win if we work together.

What are your primary public health priorities?

The first priority is substance use disorders, including tobacco, alcohol, and especially substances that may affect prenatal outcomes in newborns. We're particularly concerned about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and its implications for our youth, as well as issues surrounding maternal and child health, especially around trauma and ACEs. In addition, the life course approach to chronic disease is a big focus. 

What is your vision for the future of public health?

My vision for the future of public health would be making the healthy choice the easy choice. I would love for all of our food to be extremely healthy, tasty, and affordable. I would love walking to school or biking to work to be the norm rather than unusual. In addition, I would love clean air and clean water to be something that we don't have to overcome regulatory burdens to make a reality. Getting to the point where we don't feel like we have to overcome resistance to becoming healthy—that’s the aim.

What are you most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?

I am thankful to have been involved in making an impact on the laws, policies, culture, and climate surrounding substance use disorder and treatment. In the past two years, Maine has come a long way in respect to understanding substance use disorder, as well as implementing policies that guide patients and providers toward healthier choices. I am very proud to have been a part of this.