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Everybody’s Doctor

With a solid background in research and a range of medical field experiences, Dr. Cynthia Morrow was more than prepared to faced the challenges of Onondaga County’s sizable health department when she was appointed health commissioner last May. She moved up to the top spot, succeeding Dr. Lloyd Novick, from her position as director of preventive services with the department.

Add to that her interest in public-health issues of the day, and her experience as an educator, and Morrow seems tailor-made for the role and its need for flexibility. As a well-traveled physician (she has lived in Boston, Uganda, Ghana, Guam, Florida and Switzerland), Morrow understands the broader implications of public-health issues and how they are addressed in other settings. As health commissioner, Morrow carefully monitors when and how those issues need to be addressed locally. 

That can mean she is changing gears all week. But Morrow makes time for her other priorities: husband Dr. John Epling and their three children. Morrow, a Manlius resident, is also on the faculty of the preventive medicine Program at Upstate Medical University.

Q: What are the most pressing health issues facing families in Onondaga County right now?

A: There are many public-health concerns facing families in Onondaga County, each a priority in its own right. As the health needs of a population change, the role of the health department changes.

Historically, there was an emphasis on decreasing the risk of communicable diseases, particularly when infectious diseases were the leading cause of death. While the health department will continue to play an important role in the control of communicable diseases, heart disease and other chronic diseases are now the leading causes of death in our community, and the health department is evolving to reflect this as a health priority.

Other priority areas include reduction of racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes­–for example, in infant mortality and low birth rates. In addition, the health department is committed to strengthening our public-health preparedness whether the potential threat is pandemic flu, other natural disasters or bioterrorism.
Q :How will your office address those issues?

A: Onondaga County is very fortunate to have a large group of knowledgeable, capable people in the public-health workforce who are dedicated to improving the health of our community. The manner in which we address an issue is specific to the concern.

For example, this fall, there was a problem with the way in which flu vaccine was delivered across the country. Despite adequate vaccine supply, there was a perception that there was an actual vaccine shortage.

Health department staff from many different department programs worked diligently to make sure that the public clinics we held in partnership with Maxim Health Services and Visiting Nurse Association ran smoothly, but they also worked very hard to ensure that over 9,000 doses of flu vaccine were redistributed to health-care providers in the community. The health-care providers could then ensure that those Onondaga County residents who needed vaccine most could get it in a timely manner. 

One overriding principle for addressing any issue is enhanced communication and collaboration with community partners: hospitals, medical providers, first responders, not-for-profit organizations, local businesses and other departments within county, state and federal government. It takes a community approach to improve the health of the community.

Q: How difficult is it to juggle the administrative demands you have with your basic interests in helping people with medical issues?

A: While I do miss direct patient care at times, the reality is that I find this job incredibly rewarding. If I put my administrative demands in the context of helping a community, rather than an individual, it is not difficult at all.

Q: The county offers a staggering variety of services that many people perhaps would not associate with government. You have worked with the county since 2000, but was it difficult for you to get used to addressing health issues from a governmental context?

A: Not really. The whole concept of public health is to develop population-based strategies to improve the health of a community. Local government is a great place to effectively develop and implement such strategies.

Q: Describe a typical workweek. Do certain offices or programs generally require more attention from your office?

A: One of the things that I love most about my job is that there is no such thing as a typical week. While some people might find that frustrating, I enjoy the challenge of not knowing what the day will bring.

Public health is both proactive and reactive. The health department must be able to respond to any public health concern on a moment’s notice. If there are no immediate concerns that need to be addressed, we work on our ongoing programs.

For example, from the proactive standpoint, we routinely inspect food establishments to ensure food safety. From the reactive stance, we need to be prepared to immediately respond to an outbreak of food-borne illness or to a complaint from Onondaga County residents about possible food safety concerns. This type of dual approach is seen throughout most of our programs.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

A: Working with community partners to improve the overall health of Onondaga County residents.

Q: The least?

A: As with most jobs, the endless paperwork can get tedious.

Q: From your discussions with county residents, what have you found to be their most pressing concerns?

A: It really depends on what is going on. Currently, there is quite a bit of fear about the possibility of the bird flu in Asia sparking a global pandemic. While the health department is preparing for such an event, the reality right now is that we do not have a virus that is readily spread from person to person; therefore, we do not have to worry about pandemic flu in the short term. We do not know if or when this critical change will occur.

It is the health department’s responsibility to educate the public about current health threats and right now, normal seasonal flu poses a far greater health threat to our community than bird flu. Hopefully by now, most Onondaga County residents have taken the step to protect themselves by getting a flu shot.

Another issue that many people have concerns about is the racial and ethnic disparity in health outcomes. We need to address how we, as a community, ensure that all of our residents have the same access to, and quality of, health care.

Q: What is the one thing you would most like people to know about the health department?

A: The direction the health department follows is dictated by the health needs of the community. I hope that people understand that we are service– driven with an overarching goal of helping every Onondaga County resident lead a healthy life.                       

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