Member Spotlight: Terry Cline

January 12, 2017|4:04 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Terry Cline, PhD, is commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which is responsible for health departments in 68 counties across the state and provides oversight of more than 114,000 assorted business and occupational licenses annually, in addition to disease surveillance and intervention, emergency preparedness, maternal and child health, the WIC program, tobacco and obesity reduction programs, and many other services. In addition, Cline served on the ASTHO Board of Directors for seven years, in various capacities including regional representative and president.

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

I was first exposed to public health through the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) as a volunteer board member where I served for a number of years before eventually serving as the Joint Hospital Board Chair. The CHA operates the Cambridge Public Health Department, in addition to being a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital that provides both extensive community-based clinic services and referrals to advanced care at two affiliated hospitals in Boston. Through my experience with the CHA, I learned about the power of public health interventions on a community-wide basis. My work on the board was a transformative learning experience on many fronts, from governance and hospital finances to credentialing, quality improvement, and public health.

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

I am fortunate to have had many outstanding mentors in my life, all of whom are responsible for where I am today. These include my dissertation chair, Vicki Green, as well as Rick deFilippi and John O’Brien from CHA. They deserve credit for encouraging my personal and professional goals.

In terms of my current position, Barry Smith was the board chair for the state health department, and he made the initial call, back when I was the health attaché in Baghdad, Iraq, inquiring about my potential interest in the position, given the retirement of the sitting Oklahoma SHO. He extolled the department’s challenges and virtues. It didn’t take much arm twisting for me to return to my home state, and Barry’s leadership as a board member was critical.

Have you held other positions at a public health department?

I was trained as a clinical psychologist, so a good chunk of my professional life has been in behavioral health, which I would consider part of population and public health. As such, I would include my tenure as the clinical director for a community mental health center in Cambridge, MA, commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, secretary of health under a previous governor, administrator of SAMHSA, and a current role, serving concurrently as Gov. Mary Fallin’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.

What is your morning ritual?

I am glad you asked for morning instead of evening. I wake between 4 and 5 (usually without an alarm) and I am at the office by 6 a.m. I have a nice bowl of instant oatmeal, with frozen berries microwaved in. My first meeting, with my executive assistant, is at 7 every morning. On Monday mornings, we have our Region IV/VI call at 7:30, which is a great start to the week. Every other morning is your typical SHO day…whatever that is.

What do you do to stay healthy?  

I do a lot of walking, and I try to stay active by doing things like mowing the yard and working on projects at the house. I have fallen down, for the last year, on my swimming goal. My goal is to reinstate my morning exercise routine by being in the pool by 5:30 a.m. three days a week. I want to achieve this by the end of January. I love swimming. Please note this is a frequency goal, not a distance goal. Ask me about that in February!

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Over the last four years, I have been fortunate to travel to China, Thailand, India, Cambodia, and Taiwan. I am considering Machu Picchu next. My more frequent vacation spots are a little closer to home, and every year I visit friends in Brattleboro, VT, and Cambridge, MA. 

Why is health important to you? 

Good health allows us to appreciate all of those other things that are important to us, too, such as family, the benefits of our education, sports, travel, etc. My father ran a YMCA, so I grew up in the Y with a focus on mind, body, and spirit integration, as well as whole health. I am a believer!

What are your favorite hobbies? 

My two favorite hobbies are swimming and gardening. I am not particularly good at either, but I find both peaceful and rejuvenating.

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

Public health is this incredibly powerful and strategic tool that impacts every person in the state. There are not many agencies that can truly make that claim. I get to work with many brilliant individuals, and I must say, public health people are incredibly committed to their mission and passionate about the work. Frankly, it is a noble profession with noble goals.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

Getting policymakers, decisionmakers, and the general public to understand the value of prevention and moving upstream. Convincing others to make those investments is a constant struggle.

What are your primary public health priorities?

We have a very detailed Oklahoma Health Improvement Plan (OHIP), which includes four flagship areas aimed at dramatically improving our state’s health: (1) eliminating tobacco use, (2) reducing obesity rates, (3) improving children’s health, and (4) improving behavioral health.

These goals were chosen as the result of community and tribal consultations across the state, as well as an extensive community health assessment. OHIP is our statewide blueprint and we also have a very detailed departmental strategic plan. In addition, I believe that achieving national public health accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board is a process that will significantly improve the performance of any health department, and will ultimately improve our collective ability to improve the nation’s health!

What is your vision for the future of public health? 

This is a hot topic now, right? I’ve been part of a few groups that have invested large amounts of time in exploring and articulating a potential vision for the future of public health. Your question does not ask about public health departments, but about public health, and I think that is a critical difference. The work that acting Assistant Secretary for Health, Karen DeSalvo, did around Public Health 3.0 and seeing public health agencies as the chief health strategists—that has great appeal. I have also been inspired by the Aspen Institute’s (funded by RWJF) work on health impact assessments and a Health in All Policies approach.

At the same time, however, we need to ensure that the critical roles of traditional public health—protecting and promoting health—continue. We all recognize that traditional public health has not fared as well as we would have hoped when competing with other national priorities. But what if we could convince the vast majority of those other entities, both public and private, to use their resources to accelerate their own goals while also making strategic decisions to improve population health? This dovetails nicely with the chief health strategist role. That would be exciting and would greatly advance improved population health.