Creating a Space for Pracademics: Prioritizing the Academic-Practice Partnership, an Interview with Tom Gonzales
by Molly Gutilla, DrPH, MS
After 22 years of experience working in local public health, Tom Gonzales was hired to direct the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment in Northern Colorado. Among a long list of to-dos, Tom has prioritized the creation of a formal partnership between public health practitioners and academics in our community. I sat down with Tom to learn more about his vision and motivation for this effort.
Molly Gutilla: Why is partnering with a school of public health a top priority for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment this year?
Tom Gonzales: As we are moving to Public Health 3.0 way of working, it is clear to me that convening and having a solid partnership with a school of public health can help move us towards our goals. The Colorado School of Public Health at Colorado State University is currently researching and teaching on modern public health practice and a formal partnership will allow us to take advantage of this. The larger goal is to create a regular place we can have thoughtful and meaningful conversations about our local public health efforts. From the Board of Health’s perspective, the school is an important resource for us to tap into and one that will help us to be the best health department we can be.
Molly Gutilla: What do you see as the partnership benefits for the school?
Tom Gonzales: We want academics to understand the real world of working in public health and work with us to create change in our community. Academics need to know what we are really up against in practice, especially when we think of creating health policy in a changing political climate, and we link actions to promote health. Interview with Tom Gonzales
Molly Gutilla: What do you see as the partnership benefits for our community?
Tom Gonzales: Social determinants is big topic that we can’t work on in isolation and it’s our toughest challenges as public health practitioners. If we have more people thinking deeply about the strategies for change and promotion for health equity we are better posed for success and have a greater change of creating systems and structures that promote health for all members of our community. Together, I see us working on communicating the benefits, including the economic benefits, of addressing the social determinants of health. I also think we will be looking at our resource allocation together and uncovering the best ways to address local health inequities. Interview with Tom Gonzales
Molly Gutilla: What challenges do you anticipate in creating a formal partnership between the health department and school?
Tom Gonzales: We are all so busy. I want to determine, though, how we will thoughtfully carve out time and devote resources to our partnership. If we truly want to create a synergy that will move us to Public Health 3.0, I’m certain that we need to bridge academics and practitioners in public health.
Molly Gutilla: What do you picture our partnership to look like in 1 year, 5 years, or even 10 years from now?
Tom Gonzales: I imagine that our first year will be devoted to developing understanding of each other. I plan for us to explore where we can benefit from each other, develop an MOU to formalize the partnership, and to start to explore how our partnership will be operationalized. In 3-5 years, I see our collaboration as a fluid part of our work: we’ll have systems of working together, we’ll know the people involved on both sides, and have processes where the logistics help us, not inhibit us, in doing our work together. By 10 years, we will have applied for grants in partnership, we will have completed research projects, and ultimately – we will see health outcomes changing in our community and we will be able to link to positive changes in our community to our work. Throughout all of this, I want to see us accomplish things we know that we couldn’t have done by ourselves. Interview with Tom Gonzales
Molly Gutilla: Do you consider yourself a pracademic?
Tom Gonzales: I’d like to be a pracademic. I’m always wanting to learn. I would like to figure out a way that education is part of our routine. Public health is changing all the time, and we would all benefit by keeping a life-long learning approach.
Many thanks to Tom for sharing his perspective! Efforts to formalize the academic-practice partnership have been around for at least 20 years and we look forward to engaging in this work in Colorado as we explore this as way to encourage more public health pracademics.
Tom Gonzales, MPH, serves as Public Health Director for Larimer County Department of Health and Environment (LCDHE). Prior to joining LCDHE, he was Deputy Public Health Director at El Paso County Public Health overseeing Emergency Preparedness and Response, Environmental Health and the Laboratory. Tom’s national and local involvement includes a term as regional vice president for the National Environmental Health Association where he pioneered the sustainability committee, charged with proposing the role of sustainability in environmental health. He also served on the executive committee for the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials and was president of the Colorado Environmental Health Association (CEHA). In 2013, Tom was awarded the Milton M. Miller Award, CEHA’s highest honor for an environmental health professional. Recently, Gonzales was appointed by the Governor to serve on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. LinkedIn
Molly J. Gutilla, DrPH, MS, is an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, Colorado School of Public Health. She works to have her feet, head, and heart on the academic campus and immersed in public health practice. She has worked on campuses including The Ohio State University, Williams College and the University of Colorado. She also spends time in public health practice, working as a practitioner in both urban and rural local public health, with the state health department, and alongside the non-profit community in Colorado. LinkedIn
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