Member Spotlight: Jerome Adams

December 22, 2016|3:31 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Jerome Adams, MD, is commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health. In this role he oversees the public health protection and laboratory services, health and human services, healthcare quality and regulatory, and tobacco prevention and cessation commissions. Adams also serves as secretary of the Indiana State Department of Health's executive board, chairman of the Indiana State Trauma Care Committee, and co-chairman of the Indiana Perinatal Quality Improvement Collaborative Governing Council.

In addition to his work as a state health official, Adams currently serves as assistant professor of clinical anesthesia at Indiana University School of Medicine and as a staff anesthesiologist at Eskenazi Health, where he is chair of the pharmacy and therapeutics committee.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
Before I became the health commissioner, I was working full-time at the Indiana University School of Medicine as an assistant professor of anesthesiology. Even though I had my MPH (I am the first health commissioner in Indiana to have a degree in public health), I was not doing day-to-day public health. My area of interest while teaching at the medical school was healthcare reform and physician advocacy, and I have held leadership positions at the American Medical Association, the Indiana State Medical Association, and the American Society of Anesthesiologists. In those roles, I interacted with many legislators on the state and national levels, and I think that's what put me on the radar when Gov. Mike Pence was conducting a search for a new commissioner.

I was invited to meet with the governor to discuss the health commissioner role. I had to do a bit of quick research to figure out what the job even entailed. One of my mentors was (and remains) Dr. Virginia Caine, director of Indiana's largest county health department and former president of APHA. She advised me to pursue the job, and 10 days later, I was appointed the health commissioner. 

What do you find most challenging about public health?
Behavior change, especially when culture and politics are involved. I often say public health is easy—eat less, move more, don't smoke, drink, or have unprotected sex, get vaccinated. The hard part is convincing and empowering people to make these lifestyle changes, especially when their culture or environment (physical, social, and political) serve as impediments. As public health advocates, we can't just come armed with the science and the moral high ground; we must also work on our own cultural awareness and build an argument that truly resonates with decisionmakers to create an environment conducive to healthy living.

What are your primary public health priorities?
My primary points of focus in public health are identifying and addressing health disparities. You're not going to improve your state’s health outcomes if you focus your interventions on communities that are already doing well and ignore the underserved ones. You do this by bringing partners together and by teaching public health folks to speak to their audience instead of speaking at them.

What is your vision for the future of public health?
My vision for the future of public health is a world in which we don't look at health for health’s sake, but rather as an integral part of our economic, emotional, and life success and wellness.

What are three things public health leaders can do to educate and engage the communities they serve?
Listen before speaking; speak to their priorities, not yours; and bring in partners. No matter how persuasive your argument, sometimes you are just not the right messenger for a particular audience. Find someone who is.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your public health career?
It seems odd to say you're thankful to be part of a tragedy, but I am really thankful to have been part of the HIV outbreak related to injection drug use in southern Indiana. There are many areas I would like to do better in, but I feel like my ability to connect with folks really helped bring partners together, turn the tide of the outbreak, and change the national narrative on our opioid epidemic.

How has social media helped advance public health in your state?
Twitter (and other social media) can be a powerful force for change. I primarily use Twitter—my handle is @jeromeadamsMD—and people are constantly commenting on things that I tweet or retweet. I love when something I tweet starts a whole new conversation about a topic. When speaking to a crowd, I often encourage people to tweet about the talk. Given that most people have hundreds of followers on their platform, you can amplify your message if you capitalize on the power of social media when interacting with an audience.

What do you do to stay healthy?
In addition to two jobs, I'm also a father of three young kids. I know there are a lot of people like me. It's a struggle to find time to eat healthy and work out. So both personally, and as an example to others, I try to focus on little things I can do throughout the day or week that will add up to being healthier. I will drop to the floor in the hospital call room or in my office at the health department and do 20 push-ups or 20 squats throughout the day. Whenever I can, I also try to play outside with my kids. It's amazing how many calories you burn jumping on the trampoline, walking the dog, or shooting hoops with 10-year-olds! I'm also really big on making healthy smoothies. I can drink that on the way to work and get a significant head start on my day’s portion of fruits and vegetables.

Why is health important to you?
I come from an unhealthy family. Part of it is genetic, but many of the health issues my family has faced are caused—or at least accentuated—by lifestyle. To me, being knowledgeable about health means having the opportunity to get married, to see my kids graduate from college, and to meet my grandkids. Honestly, health is important to me for selfish reasons, but I think my story, which I share a lot, resonates with others. They can see themselves in me and my experiences. I also feel like God puts me in situations where I can share with and reach out to others. Living longer and helping others live longer—that's a win-win!

What are your favorite hobbies?
My favorite hobby now is anything that allows me to spend time with my kids. One kid loves fishing, another loves soccer, and my baby girl loves art and science (I recently helped her make her own Chapstick with a makeup science kit!). Kids grow up quickly, and already my 11 and 12-year-olds clearly prefer their friends over dad. As a parent, you have to embrace every moment you share together.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?
We go to the Caribbean a lot because my wife's idea of vacation is reading a book on the beach. Backpacking through Europe or touring a museum are more my idea of a great time—I love Paris and Rome—but especially with little kids, my wife has been winning that debate lately!

What is your morning ritual?
Every morning is different for me, as I still practice part-time at the hospital. Some mornings I get up early to start cases in the hospital at 7 a.m. Other mornings, I have a later start at the health department. Sometimes, I leave the hospital after finishing call and head to the health department or a related event. My morning routine changes on a daily basis.