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Q&A with Umair Shah, director of Harris County Public Health in Houston

Nov 1, 2019

Umair Shah is the director of Harris County Public Health in Houston. Shah spoke with Interact for Health about the county's efforts to address health equity.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the Harris County Public Health's goals?

Shah: Harris County Public Health is the health department for the third largest county in the United States, serving 4.7 million people over 1,778 square miles. We ensure the safety and health of the community, and we strongly believe in taking an equity-based approach to enact change to improve health. Our goals focus on advancing health equity by innovatively and creatively engaging the community.

Interact for Health: Could you tell me a brief story that illustrates the effect of your work in the local community?

Shah: In February, we conducted the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) in the northwestern part of Harris County. We knocked on doors to collect data and ask residents questions about how they are preparing for or recovering from public health emergencies. We used the assessment to talk to community members about their needs, understand what is happening within the community, and to connect residents with government services they might not know are available. For example, we shared information about our more than 30 Mobile Health Villages, which provide mobile dental, medical, and other health care and veterinarian services from seven or eight recreational vehicle units.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Shah: I'm most proud of our response after Hurricane Harvey. We took an all-department approach to address the health issues in our community after the hurricane. We were engaged. We were creative. And we incorporated health equity into our work. Our team focused on being in the community and set up Mobile Health Villages. Most health departments have an RV unit to provide health services, but we took our RV units and put them together to form a village for the community to access the services they need where they are.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

Shah: There are a number of lessons. First and foremost, we understand health must be invested in and must promote the well-being of a community. After the emergencies we've faced from Tropical Storm Allison to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Harvey to infectious diseases like Ebola, the pandemic H1N1, measles, and Zika, we've learned we have to be nimble and we have to be engaged with the community to ensure we are investing our limited resources in the right areas. Another lesson we have learned is every health department should have partners within the community, such as businesses, schools, and housing and transportation agencies, to address the social determinants of health and improve health equity.

Interact for Health: What about your work excites you most?

Shah: It's an incredible responsibility and privilege to be able to help address a community's needs. It is very rewarding to be able to impact the public health needs of an entire community. We're actively combating the invisibility crisis that prevents people from seeing the importance of a community's well-being by increasing the visibility of public health work to allow people to value and validate the work.

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