Jerome Adams, MD: A grassroots champion of public health

As legislators continue to debate and vote on crucial measures that would drastically change the underlying foundation of our health system, it is important to remember not all meaningful healthcare policy is crafted by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Much of the salient work to research and enact preventive care measures and curb chronic, debilitating illnesses is the cumulative product of on-the-ground efforts to evaluate and implement innovative solutions at the community-level.

A healthcare leader who has demonstrated the value of hard public health work at the local level is Indiana’s own Jerome Adams, MD, who has been nominated to act as the nation’s leading health and wellness spokesperson as the Surgeon General of the United States.

In his tenure as Indiana’s state health commissioner, Dr. Adams has built a solid reputation on both sides of the aisle as a true patient-focused community health advocate. His career as a highly respected anesthesiologist combined with his attentive, down-to-earth people skills will aid him in navigating not only the politics of Washington, but also the disparate and pressing health concerns affecting communities coast to coast.

One such issue of highest concern is the opioid epidemic, the most threatening public health crisis we face in 2017. Just two years ago, drug overdoses accounted for more deaths in America—over 52,000—than HIV/AIDS did at its peak year in 1995. And while opioid use affects some regions more than others, few would debate that the crisis is a national public health emergency.

Dr. Adams is no stranger to this epidemic. In March 2015, four months into his post as Indiana’s state health commissioner, Dr. Adams sat in then-Gov. Mike Pence’s office alongside CDC and state health officials to discuss a potentially devastating emergency: Scott County was experiencing an unprecedented HIV/AIDS outbreak with no end in sight. The outbreak stemmed from intravenous drug use with shared needles. In January of that year, eight people tested positive for HIV. By May, that number had exploded to 160.

Relying on a body of conclusive and convincing evidence from the medical community, Dr. Adams successfully persuaded the governor to authorize a 30-day emergency needle exchange, arguing that doing so would contain the outbreak without encouraging opioid use.

Because of Dr. Adams’ hard-fought advocacy, by September the spread of HIV/AIDS in Scott County had plummeted. Pence then enacted legislation allowing syringe exchanges in other Indiana counties experiencing a similar outbreak. And by January 2016, Congress had lifted a long-standing ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs.

The Scott County epidemic is just one example of Dr. Adams’ resolve as a physician and his dedication to serving the most vulnerable of populations with compassionate and sensible solutions. Recognizing the need for a multifaceted and preventive strategy in the struggle against opioids, Dr. Adams has continued to work tirelessly to raise awareness about the dangers of opioid use and to combat the unjust and counterproductive stigma attached to those with mental illness and behavioral health issues. As two leaders of a Catholic health system whose ministry often focuses on those who need care most, we applaud his leadership.

While skill and courage are essential to an effective public health official, a truly transformative Surgeon General must also possess the capacity to communicate and connect with a diverse population of patients from all backgrounds. Dr. Adams has demonstrated this crucial ability time and again.

As an example, during his time at the University of Maryland, Dr. Adams worked on the ground in Zimbabwe, conducting medical research on the country’s Ebola outbreak during the 1990s. This experience later proved fruitful in 2014, as Dr. Adams worked to educate Indiana residents about the facts—and myths—of the disease during the West African Ebola outbreak.

In a time of anxiety and divisive rhetoric surrounding our country’s health system, Dr. Adams is a rare bipartisan leader with the ability to unify stakeholders of disparate backgrounds and opinions to find consensus on the public health issues that matter most—from tobacco cessation to infant mortality. He understands the merits of preventive care and has shown a keen interest in applying grassroots programs to improve the overall health of the populations he serves.

We believe our country would be hard-pressed to find a healthcare official better suited for Surgeon General of the United States, and we’re pleased to support his nomination for the position.

 

Anthony Tersigni, EdD, is President and CEO of Ascension and Jonathan Nalli is CEO of Ascension's St. Vincent Indiana.

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