Member Spotlight: Esther Muña
Esther Muña, MHA, CPC, is chief executive officer for the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation, the health agency for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is responsible for the territory’s sole hospital, dialysis center, community health center, as well as other public health services and programs. Muña has served on ASTHO’s Access Policy Committee for three years.
What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
I worked as a manager for various departments in the health system for over 20 years and I loved the ability to have tangible positive outcomes and feedback. When you can make a positive change and truly see the outcomes of that change, it’s invigorating. This is why I felt compelled to become a state health official—my love for the Northern Mariana Islands and its people. I accepted the job when the health system was failing. I understand the decades of struggles our residents have endured in trying to live healthier lives and the limitations of accessing healthcare services. The people deserved a better health system, and I believed that if I could help, I should at least take that opportunity.
Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?
Since I worked in public health, I had tremendous support from all of my supervisors and mentors. They were the ones who pushed me to advance my education. I was fortunate to have doors open for me and I now make it my mission to open doors for others wishing to have a career in public health and health services. There is also the influence of my family. They were always encouraging, and as my daughter especially liked to remind me: “You have to help them, Mom.” It was hard to say no to her.
What other positions you have held at a public health department?
I’ve held various positions in the public health department. I was chief financial officer and chief operating officer. My experience in hospital services dealing with chronic illnesses and rising health costs widened my interest in public health and what it can do to prevent our health system’s problems.
What is your morning ritual?
As soon as I’m up, I check my emails. The Mariana Islands time zone is nine or 10 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. So while I’m asleep, emails trickle in from federal partners, counterparts, and colleagues. Some emails require a reply before I head to the office, which is around the same time people on the east coast end their work day. Also, I have to make time to play with my two dogs in the morning. I get my day going after giving them belly rubs.
What do you do to stay healthy?
I walk a lot and have a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle. I also try to always have a positive attitude and joyful day. I love to laugh, so it wouldn’t be unusual for me to watch comedy before bed. Steven Colbert is my favorite.
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
I am fortunate to live on a resort island, so having a “staycation” on the island of Saipan is one of my favorite vacation spots. We are also close to other beautiful islands in the Pacific—all favorites. I also love visiting nearby countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Australia, as well as visiting family in the U.S.
Why is health important to you?
Health is important to me because when there is good health, it adds to quality in life. Working in our health system, the struggles of poor health are always visible. But we also witness the tremendous value of good health and it is important for us as public health leaders to help others achieve that.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I enjoy cooking and trying out new and healthy recipes. Also, although I’m not athletic, I love to watch sports and I do get loud.
How has public health changed during your time in the field?
Public health has changed during my time through the integration of public health in healthcare, and by moving away from silos to a systems approach. For a health department that has all health services under one umbrella, we’ve seen the successes of using this approach.
What do you find most challenging about public health?
I find two things particularly challenging. First is convincing policymakers that what we are trying to do is important and that it should be supported with adequate funding. The other is having an adequate public health workforce.
What are three things public health leaders can do to educate and engage the communities they serve?
I do believe public health leaders need to understand and be sensitive about cultural values and how they can influence health practices. The Northern Mariana Islands is a melting pot of cultures, and if we are to be effective in engaging our community, we need to embrace that. Public health leaders also need to emphasize the use of data. Finally, lead by example and practice good, healthy habits.
What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?
I’m most thankful for the amazing and passionate individuals I work with. They always find ways to make things happen despite numerous challenges because they believe in the work they do and that public health works.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?
You need to have and maintain good relationships. Public health can achieve a lot more when individual and organizational partners participate in our mission.