Member Spotlight: Thomas Williams

November 30, 2017|3:13 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Thomas Williams, MDThomas Williams, MD, serves a dual role as chief medical officer and director of the Division of Public Health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Prior to this, Williams, an anatomic and clinical pathologist with subspecialty expertise in chemical pathology, practiced medicine at the Nebraska Methodist Hospital.

Williams previous activities involving public health and government include serving on CDC’s Clinical Laboratory Department Advisory Committee and other CDC working groups, as well as chair and vice-chair for consensus and document development in chemistry, toxicology, and emergency preparedness. Williams also served four terms as president of the Nebraska Association of Pathologists. A graduate of University of Nebraska Lincoln with a medical degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Williams and his wife have two adopted adult children and live in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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

I got involved in public health following various experiences with public health professionals and processes related to emergency planning, including pandemics, in Omaha, NE. In addition, previous work with the Red Cross Disaster Health Services and CDC’s Division of Laboratory Systems played a key role, as well as a long-term interest and involvement in emergency planning at the local level. As I was planning to retire from my previous position, I was contacted regarding potential interest as a state health official and said yes.

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

The previous incumbent, Dr. Joann Schaefer, was a great inspiration.

What is your morning ritual?

I am at work before seven a.m., where I have coffee, review the news, and then engage in spiritual renewal, using selected scriptures or daily readings, before then beginning the day in earnest.

What do you do to stay healthy?

Most nights, I am able to work out after arriving home. This involves free weights, other exercises, and stationary biking. In addition, I like to walk, as we live on the prairie. Sometimes my wife and I work out together.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Home! We have a new home on a conservation easement prairie. Otherwise, if we are vacationing away from home, we enjoy Colorado, Vail, or Aspen In the summer, we like to hike, attend concerts, and enjoy great food.

What are your favorite hobbies?

In addition to hiking and exercise, I enjoy amateur radio and aviation, as I earned my private pilot license in high school through the Civil Air Patrol. In addition, I enjoy herding sheep with my wife with our bearded collies.

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic?

Nebraska has a prescription drug monitoring program with all controlled substances entered since Jan. 1, 2017, and all prescribed medications to be entered by Jan. 1, 2018. In addition, we recently published the Nebraska Pain Management Guidance Document, as well as helped to kick off an opioid education and intervention effort with the offices of the governor, attorney general, and partners from an opioid summit last fall. We are also working with health educators to train medical prescribers working with individuals suffering from substance abuse and addiction.

How did your career in public health begin? 

In addition to what I described above, prior to this, I practiced medicine at the Nebraska Methodist Hospital for 38 years, as an anatomic and clinical pathologist with subspecialty expertise in chemical pathology—the last 22 years of which were spent as chair of pathology and laboratory medical director.

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

The people I work with and the sense of mission. I couldn’t do this work without that.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

Formally, my career as a public health professional is just over one year old. The learning curve has been steep—and challenging.

What are your primary public health priorities?

In addition to supporting the people of Nebraska, our primary priorities are to accomplish the mission, vision, and strategic plan laid out by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and the Division of Public Health.

What is your vision for the future of public health?

Integrating and aligning the resources and talent of public health professionals and the work we do into the community and healthcare system is the path forward.

What are three things public health leaders can do to educate and engage the communities they serve?

First, leverage personal and professional networks. In addition, it is important to maintain and support relationships with local health departments, as well as continue to explore new community-based models and systems for managing disease, disabilities, and promoting wellness.