Member Spotlight: Harry Chen
Harry Chen, MD, has been commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health since 2011. On Jan. 5, 2017, he will step down, having decided not to seek reappointment. In addition to his role as commissioner, Chen served as acting secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services. Previously, he was emergency room director at Rutland Regional Medical Center and served as a state representative. During his time as commissioner, Chen led the department in bringing opioid addiction into the national spotlight.
“My six years as commissioner have without a doubt been the best job of my career. It has been tremendously challenging and at the same time immensely satisfying,” Chen said following his decision not to seek reappointment. “Based on our long list of accomplishments and dedicated staff, I’m confident that Vermont’s public health mission is in good hands. The future is bright and will continue to be so under the next commissioner.”
Chen spoke with ASTHO about his tenure as a state health official and why he believes public health is so important.
What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?
I am thankful to have been given the extraordinary opportunity to lead dedicated, passionate, and capable professionals with a shared vision and the ability to make a difference in the lives of so many. For me, the past six years have been a journey of discovery in understanding the power of public health.
What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
Becoming a state health official was a confluence of several different factors. As an emergency physician for over thirty years, I witnessed first-hand the consequences of poor choices and grew increasingly frustrated with how ineffective those teachable moments were. Vermont’s small scale and rich tradition of community involvement led me to get active in local politics and eventually serve three terms in the state legislature, where I began to understand the power of policy to influence the choices individuals make. My time in the legislature allowed me to build important relationships with many policymakers, including the newly-elected governor, who surprised me by asking me to serve as health commissioner. I often refer to myself as a reformed politician and a converted clinician.
Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?
Conversations with former commissioners and others made it clear to me that even though it turned my life upside down—I had to hang up the stethoscope—and brought me into a space I had little experience in, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
What other positions have you held at a public health department?
I served as a medical advisor and educator for a local emergency medical services district and a member of the Board of Medical Practice, the entity that regulates physicians in Vermont.
What do you love most about the public health work you do?
The astounding variety of topics and challenges that we deal with and the need to rapidly assimilate information required to make decisions, and then communicate them to employees, policymakers, and the public.
What do you find most challenging about public health?
Risk communication. It balances what we know or don’t know from the science with the right-sized fear or apprehension on the part of the public. When we weigh this balance accurately—and take the appropriate actions—we succeed at communicating risk. Done poorly, it causes a maelstrom. Done well, it’s a thing of beauty.
What are your primary public health priorities?
Substance misuse and addiction, and 3-4-50, which spells out the 3 behaviors (smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise) that cause 4 diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lung disease) that result in more than 50 percent of deaths in Vermont.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?
Communicate, communicate, communicate—with the governor, with colleagues, and with partners and the public. Do it in an honest and empathetic way that fosters confidence and trust. It will pay dividends when you need it the most.
What is your morning ritual?
Caffeine and a look at the morning media to make sure the press got it right on yesterday’s events. Then I look ahead to see what new challenges might await me at the office.
What do you do to stay healthy?
Portion control, everything in moderation, and making exercise a required activity. I do some of my best thinking while swimming, running, or biking
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
Our camp on Lake Dunmore in Central Vermont. It’s hard to get too worked up when confronted by a beautiful vista of mountains and water.
Why is health important to you?
It is the proverbial key to the kingdom of physical, mental, and social well-being.
What are your favorite hobbies?
Listening to music and making dinner for our grown kids and a gaggle of their friends. To succeed, exercise has to be hobby as well as a habit.