Over the last several months the Star Tribune has published numerous articles and editorials related to the Minnesota Department of Health’s need to transform its work of regulating the care provided to vulnerable adults. Raising this important issue has helped generate additional efforts and resources for improving complaint management.
Unfortunately, the articles and their headlines have also contributed to a narrative that the entire department is in disarray.
Nothing could be further from reality, and it is time for the Star Tribune to stop repeating this false narrative.
Exaggerating the scope of the organization’s challenges may make for dramatic copy, but it does a grave disservice to the 1,400 talented, mission-driven and committed public servants who have dedicated their professional lives to protecting and improving the health of everyone in Minnesota. While acknowledging that much work needs to be done to protect the health and safety of vulnerable adults, Minnesotans should recognize that they are protected 24/7 by one of the best health departments in the country.
In dealing with public health challenges from AIDS to Zika across all ages (notwithstanding the regulatory challenges around elder care) in all parts of the state, MDH has been a public health leader. MDH was among the first state health departments to become accredited (a process that verifies that an agency’s policies, programs, expertise and administrative systems are of highest quality and able to effectively address any public health challenge) and continues to work to further improve its services.
MDH has long held a national reputation as a top-quality health department. Its programs in infectious disease; foodborne illnesses; environmental health; maternal and child health; newborn screening; health informatics; tobacco control; rural health; and heart disease, cancer and violence prevention (among many others) have been national models, and federal public health agencies frequently call upon MDH staff for their expertise and advice.
While maintaining the high quality of traditional public health services, MDH is also a leader in transforming public health to meet 21st-century challenges like antibiotic resistance, climate change, obesity, dementia, substance misuse, mental illness and health inequities. These transformational efforts include:
• Highlighting the impact of economic and social conditions (including structural racism) as major determinants of health and health inequities.
• Engaging other state agencies and non-health-sector organizations in a “health in all policies” approach to creating a healthier and more equitable state.
• Strengthening local public health agencies so they are better equipped to meet evolving public health needs at the local level.
• Using a policy, system and environmental change strategy not only to effectively address chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dementia but to build community resilience that is essential in addressing the diseases of disconnection and despair like opioid and other substance misuse, suicide, mental illness, and community and family violence.
• Changing the national perceptions of medical cannabis programs from simply a gateway to marijuana legalization to a high-quality, evidence-based, tightly controlled system of getting new and promising medications to suffering individuals.
• Refocusing food inspections from a regulatory/punishment approach to one that focuses on prevention through education, training and partnerships to help proprietors be successful. A similar approach to transforming regulation of elder care services was being implemented when I was asked to step down as commissioner.
Although I am no longer part of the MDH team that is transforming public health to meet 21st-century challenges, I’m confident the skilled and dedicated MDH staff along with their new commissioner will carry on that work while consistently providing the highest quality public health services that Minnesotans need and deserve.
Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the country due in no small part to the efforts of MDH. The work of MDH and public health is more important now than ever and the MDH staff are well-equipped to lead and do the work of protecting and improving the health of all Minnesotans.
Edward Ehlinger is a physician and former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.