A Conversation with Florida Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip

Celeste Philip, MD, MPH

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We spoke with Dr. Celeste Philip, MD, MPH, Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, about receiving the 2016 Florida Outstanding Woman in Public Health Award and her advice to other women in public health.

JPHMP Direct: Tell us about your background in public health. How did you start your public health career?

Celeste Philip, MD, MPH: I was lucky enough to be inspired to work in public health early on in my life. In college, I volunteered with a group in the Dominican Republic, and that brought to life how a community could be viewed as a patient with many different people and organizations working to make it healthy. After attending medical and public health school in California, I journeyed to Florida to complete my residency in family medicine, and I have worked in public health in this state ever since.

I then served as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and then completed a residency program in preventive medicine through CDC, which further honed my skills in population health. This included training in many areas related to the work of public health, including biostatistics and epidemiology; community health assessment and planning; environmental health and built environment; health services management and administration; social and behavioral health factors, and health policy. It was during this CDC residency training that I was assigned to the Florida Department of Health in Polk County.

Some of my earliest projects included analysis of national breastfeeding and obesity trends; micronutrient malnutrition projects in Niger, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic while at CDC; and overseeing the community health assessment and planning process in Polk County.

JPHMP Direct: What are some public health issues or opportunities, locally or globally, that public health students should be aware of and get involved in?

Celeste Philip, MD, MPH: All public health professionals have a role in helping community members achieve health equity, and understanding and explaining that place matters. One of the most powerful statements that I use repeatedly is that someone’s zip code is often times more important than their family history or who their doctor is in predicting their health status.

We also know that the first thousand days of life are critical, that language development during this period predicts lifelong educational outcomes which is a great influencer of lifelong health outcomes. Trauma-informed care that seeks to identify children and adolescents who have experienced adverse events and to provide them with ways to cope effectively with toxic stress is an emerging field that public health students should challenge themselves to master.

Public health is grounded in partnerships, so start honing your communication, collaboration and negotiation skills! Working across nearly every public agency and engaging influential leaders from the private sector to begin to address poverty and education are key. This type of approach has been critical as we have addressed emerging health threats such as Zika and responding to two hurricanes last year, and as all states move forward in addressing opioid overdoses in a comprehensive and sustainable way.

JPHMP Direct: You received the Florida Outstanding Woman in Public Health Award in 2016. What advice do you have for women (or others in general) who are making their own significant contributions to the field of public health?

Celeste Philip, MD, MPH: What was noted by the individuals that nominated me was that I tried to use my voice to speak for those who are not always represented in decision making. To achieve health equity, inclusive of diverse perspectives is important. Sometimes a different way of approaching an issue is unpopular if it challenges the status quo; being direct but respectful in communication—verbal and written—is something I strive to do every day.

We also need to make sure that our interventions are culturally sensitive and appropriate and based on a systematic evaluation of data and best practices. This includes awareness of needs by age, physical abilities, income levels, and rural/urban differences. By determining the effectiveness of a program or policy and its applicability to the community with whom you are working, you can make better informed investments that result in more significant improvements to the health of the people you serve.

JPHMP Direct: How can the public be involved in public health?

Celeste Philip, MD, MPH: To the general population, the work of public health often goes unnoticed in their daily lives. And on some level that’s great! It means we’re doing our jobs well when the general public doesn’t have to worry about the quality of their water or the safety of their food. The larger changes we seek to improve social determinants of health require significant community engagement. Every opportunity, we must continue sharing the message that health care is only a small component of what makes someone healthy. If we invest up front in nutritious and affordable food, public safety and green spaces, and developing a sense of connectedness in neighborhoods, fewer people will suffer from preventable chronic diseases and health care expenditures will be lower. However, if we do our best to help families have healthy children, who then grow into healthy adults, people are more productive and fulfilled. This is the ultimate goal and reward of public health.

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Celeste Philip, MD, MPH, was appointed by Governor Rick Scott as Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health on May 18, 2016. Prior to that, she served as the Deputy Secretary for Health and Deputy State Health Officer for Children’s Medical Services. Dr. Philip is board certified in Family Medicine as well as Public Health and General Preventive Medicine. She serves on the board of directors for the Public Health Accreditation Board and the National Forum for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. She is the immediate-past president of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) six-state Greater Southeast Affiliate and serves on a number of national AHA committees. Dr. Philip was named the 2016 Outstanding Public Health Woman of the Year by the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

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