This is the second in a series of conversations with BUILD awardees in celebration of National Public Health Week. You can read the first here

Public health departments are a cornerstone of well-being in our nation. They play a vital role in the community-driven, multi-sector partnerships that are central to our mission at The BUILD Health Challenge® to achieve just health outcomes for all. In celebration of National Public Health Week this week, we would like to highlight the important work that public health agencies have done, and continue to do, as an integral part of their BUILD community, as well as the people behind that work.

Patrick Cusick, RS, MSPH is the interim Commissioner of the Environment at the Cleveland Department of Public Health. His collaborative focused on addressing unsafe housing and housing-related health outcomes for highly vulnerable populations in Cleveland, OH during the first and second BUILD cohorts.

What was your role within your BUILD collaborative? Why did you and your health department decide to get involved in the BUILD project in your community?

My role was to be the local public health agency partner in the initial project. Our department decided that this project was an opportunity to look at ways to bring together existing data in various city departments to guide and assist the public in identifying healthier housing options. In addition, the initial project included assessing modest interventions in housing to reduce admissions due to asthma exacerbations in children due to unhealthy housing conditions. Existing programs had separate information silos related to building violations, lead paint issues, and similar data that could assist people trying to find out if a house or apartment they wanted to rent or buy was safer than another. The initial project was focused on combining violation histories for housing units to include building violations, health code violations, and other available information into a public portal. The repair intervention portion was a pilot project focused on identifying housing units where children with asthma lived, and examine if limited repair interventions (~$1200.00) targeting asthma triggers (mold, dust from chipping paint and other sources, etc.) could reduce hospitalizations. As the public health agency, our role in shaping policies and processes that focused on improved health outcomes was central to leveraging existing programs and partners to align efforts, data systems, and processes to target health outcomes.

Building on the last year, which included a racial justice movement, a global pandemic, and a growing economic divide, how do you think public health will be impacted going forward? What do you see your role, and the role of the local public health department, being in this change?

I have been highly aware of the broadened awareness of the terms “health equity” and increasing focus on racial and economic justice in media reporting and public discussion due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the entire population. I am hoping we, as public health professionals, can build on the momentum of positive public health recognition to leverage changes in policies and programs that directly target the social determinants of health and inclusion of the “Health in All Policies” lens as we look at fixing systems going forward.

It is incumbent on local public health and local governments to advocate and ensure any funding or program adjustments build on this moment to synergize efforts across agencies – to intentionally build healthier systems, programs and communities.

What is one thing you wish people knew about the work you do?

Public health is too broad to crystallize into one thing! I wish people were aware of the tremendous number of committed individuals who throw themselves into public health services and programs across the country at substantially lower wages than their skills would command in the broader economic realm, and that most do it out of a sense of serving their fellow citizens and communities. Public health is a broad collection of various fields and programs which (until a pandemic or disaster hits) is largely unrecognized. We all are impacted by successful public health campaigns that have now become woven into the fabric of our daily lives, to the point they are often taken for granted: clean drinking water, wastewater removal, safe food and medicines, seatbelts, no smoking in public space and offices, accident prevention, lead poisoning prevention, disease surveillance, immunizations, food security, environmental justice, and so many other key programs.

 

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Adam Britton is an intern with the BUILD Health Challenge. He will graduate from the University of Maryland in May 2021.