Member Spotlight: Scott Harris

February 01, 2018|3:17 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Scott Harris, MDScott Harris, MD, is acting state health officer of the Alabama Department of Public Health. Harris joined the department of public health in 2015 after practicing medicine for more than 20 years. He is one of the founding members of the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County, a nonprofit that provides free medical care to the uninsured. Harris served as the clinic’s medical director from 2004-2015. He continues to serve on the clinic’s board.

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

I spent two decades as an adult infectious disease specialist in Alabama, practicing traditional inpatient and outpatient infectious disease medicine as well as HIV care. I also served as a tuberculosis consultant for over a decade. Additionally, I served 11 years as the volunteer medical director of a community free clinic, providing direct medical care and helping coordinate specialty care for our indigent population. All of these interests and activities eventually led me to my current career in public health, which I began full-time about three years ago.

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

I was originally hired by Don Williamson, then the state health officer of Alabama. I subsequently worked for his successor, Tom Miller. Both of these men had long, distinguished careers in public health and served as mentors as I transitioned from private practice into the state health department. 

What is your morning ritual?

My mornings always include the newspaper and coffee. I simply don’t feel prepared for the day otherwise!

What do you do to stay healthy?

I enjoy road cycling, although recently moving to an urban area has reduced my biking somewhat. Walking is one of my favorite pastimes, and our home in Montgomery is within walking distance of my office. After work hours, my wife Sandy and I often walk around the downtown area of our state capital as a way to de-stress after the work day. Our family believes in cooking at home using fresh ingredients. We spend Saturday mornings at our local farmers market, and make every effort to eat food that is grown in Alabama in a sustainable way.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

My wife and I have been fortunate to travel to many interesting places, but our favorite spot is the beautiful and historic city of Aix-en-Provence. Any vacation there involves quiet days of exploring the city by foot, visiting the markets for local produce, enjoying the scenery, and simply relaxing.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I enjoy walking, hiking, bicycling, cooking, and reading.

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic?

I serve as one of three co-chairs on Gov. Kay Ivey’s taskforce addressing the opioid crisis in Alabama. While Alabama, as compared with other states, has seen a relatively lower numbers of deaths from heroin and synthetic fentanyl, we still have extremely high rates of opioid prescribing and addiction. Our strategic plan addresses many aspects of the issue, including enhanced use of PDMP data, the expansion of naloxone availability and use, prescriber re-education and training, increased access to care for persons with behavioral health and substance use disorders, as well as improving community engagement and public understanding of the crisis.

How did your career in public health begin?

As mentioned, my career in HIV medicine, as well as the work I did at the community free clinic, led me to appreciate how individual and population outcomes are affected by the social determinants of health. Despite the remarkable achievements of public health officials in Alabama, the state still has segments of population that experience high levels of poverty, low levels of educational attainment, and health disparities that are starkly demarcated by race. This realization is what attracted me to public health as a career, as I wanted to have an opportunity to work on improving the health outcomes of all Alabamians.  

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

I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know many dedicated and passionate public health professionals, both within the department of public health and from other organizations and states. It is reaffirming to meet others who share a vision for protecting and improving the health of our communities.  

What do you find most challenging about public health?

I am still a novice at working within the political process to build consensus and generate support for measures that are important to achieving our goals. It has been a gratifying experience when I have been able to gain support from political leaders and other stakeholders who do not necessarily share the values of public health. However, this has been challenging, and it is an area in which I still have much to learn.

What are your primary public health priorities?

Learning how to prioritize the use of limited resources has been one of the most important challenges in my new position. While there are many public health issues that are important to our state, those that have the greatest impact on the lives of Alabamians include infant mortality issues, problems of access to care for our poorest citizens, and the prevalence of chronic disease, especially those attributable to obesity, smoking, and inactivity. These problems are not new and can seem intractable, but we are directing our energies at the department of public health to effectively address each issue using evidence-based interventions.

What is your vision for the future of public health?

The current uncertainty in our political environment foreshadows major changes in what public health will be able to do. For example, we may continue to reduce our role in the provision of direct clinical services, but in recognizing the continued need for those services in many communities, the key issue will then become how do we use our expertise in population health to ensure that individuals still have access to those services that we may no longer provide.