Ronald W. Chapman, MD, MPH: Passion for Public Health


California Department of Public Health, Sacramento, CA

August 01, 2011

Dr. Ron Chapman is the recently appointed Director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and has previously served as the chief medical officer for Partnership HealthPlan California, as the health officer for Solano County Public Health, as the chief of the Medicine and Public Health Section for the California Department of Health Services as well as the chief of the Integrating Medicine and Public Health Program at U.C. San Francisco, and is a board certified family practice physician. In addition, he is an alumnus of the initial cohort of the Center’s California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) Health Care Leadership Program. This program will celebrate ten years of training interdisciplinary clinicians throughout the state of California in September 2011.

Asked about the roots of his particular interest in public health, Dr. Chapman explained that his reason for the high level involvement is a strong desire to have an impact on the health of large populations of people. While public health has been a focal point throughout his entire career, he also keeps the medicine side close at hand. Being a family doctor as well, he focuses on prevention, wellness and medicine.

At the time of the interview, Dr. Chapman had been in his new position as director of the CDPH for a mere four weeks. Characterizing his daily workload, he explained: “It will probably look different in another four weeks. This is one of the largest public health departments in the country with 3,500 employees, with 60 offices all over the state, and a $ 3.5 billion budget. The department has nearly 2,000 contracts, 300 programs, and is responsible for everything from food safety to lead screening, to licensing hospitals etc. I am in the process of meeting with the staff and doing a lot of listening and learning about their challenges and successes. I also do a lot of meet and greet in Sacramento to understand issues from the legislative perspective. In addition, I’m meeting with stakeholders and many private and public entities.”

Considering a number of highly important public health issues in California, Dr. Chapman finds the number one challenge to be all about infrastructure: “We are at the tail end of the worst recession in US history--which resulted in the reduction of staff and services. It’s my goal to maintain the quality of work that we do. We have a lot of great programs with great public health staff who can only run as well as the administrative structure that supports them. The people in public health are suffering from decreased morale. Therefore morale boosting, leadership development and team building are very important components of a well-functioning public health system. It will also be critical to apply quality improvement principles to the functioning of public health. There is a nationwide movement to public health accreditation of which quality improvement will then be a required component.”

This ambitious undertaking brings with it its own leadership challenges. Dr. Chapman describes his role will be creating a vision to move forward and strengthening the infrastructure in his huge department. “The communication piece is one of my strengths,” he explains, “but it is also a great challenge to communicate to 3,500 people spread out over the whole state. How do you build trust and transparency? The CHCF fellowship gave me a great foundation to build on in identifying the issues and challenges. The process of developing as a leader never ends. I look forward to the alumni meetings as the networking with the other fellows is a huge benefit to me. We speak our own language; we’re able to instantly relate to the issues. It’s really important to remember we’re never alone, even if sometimes feel that we are. I rely on my outstanding team at CDPH.”

For anyone interested in taking leadership in public health, Dr. Chapman recommends talking to people in the field: ”But in the end it’s about taking a leap. You can learn everything, but you have to have some courage to make the initial jump.” And his request to Californians with regards to improving their health sounds as follows: “If people could be more physically active, eat healthier and quit smoking--that would be great. Everybody needs to think about their family and community, and contribute to their personal health, the health of their family, and their community. The environment plays a huge role in this. Thinking about how each neighborhood could be made safer and more encouraging of physical activity and eating healthy will have a big impact.”


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