County medical director assesses situation

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BILL_LETSON_1The new medical director at El Paso County Public Health has been in Colorado Springs for only eight months, but he’s been busy.

Dr. Bill Letson views his job as the chance to prevent sickness and death from various diseases. Early disease prevention, he says, is the most cost-effective way to approach health and well-being for the entire population.

Letson earned his medical degree at the University of Colorado and had specialty training in pediatrics at the University of Arizona, followed by a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University and public health training at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All this experience led him to the Springs, where he now oversees a variety of programs and services for El Paso County, including serving as a medical consultant to the health department, supervising activities around the communicable disease and epidemiology program. Letson also is responsible for the vital records program.

Recently, he took time to answer questions about his roles as medical director and director of the disease prevention and control division at El Paso County Public Health.

Why did you choose public health as a career?

I was intrigued by the opportunity to prevent disease and long-term morbidity resulting from various diseases. Pediatrics is a natural entry to that because we deal so much with immunizations in children to prevent what used to routinely prevent them from reaching adulthood. We also are very focused on providing guidance to young parents on a variety of health-related issues that helps to keep kids healthy throughout life. Early disease prevention and promotion of healthy behaviors offer the most cost-effective way to approach health and well-being for both individuals and the population at large.

What are some of the job’s challenges?

The challenges are primarily related to keeping prevention in the forefront of how people, including health care providers, think about health. Our health care system is oriented toward acute problems after they exist, rather than attempting to prevent them in the first place.

This made partial sense 100 years ago before we knew as much about prevention as we do now, but we now have a large knowledge base and tools to prevent disease and disease morbidity. The second challenge is that when we are very successful with preventive measures like water sanitation or immunizations, the diseases fall out of public view and the public tends to forget the importance of continuing the preventive practices.

How will the uncertain health care environment affect your job?

I think that in the long run, the Affordable Care Act will be a boon for the practice of public and preventive health. In the short run, while elements of the Act are being implemented, there will be shifting of already-scarce resources and confusion as to how the health care environment is changing and not changing. This will keep those of us in public health as well as other sectors of the health care system and the public a little off-balance for a while.

What do you like best about working in public health?

I really like seeing communicable diseases disappear or nearly disappear as a result of public health efforts on sanitation and immunizations. It is also rewarding to see efforts at a variety of counseling on health matters take effect and change peoples’ lives for the better, from cessation of smoking to acquiring better nutrition and safer environments for growing children. It is wonderful to see individuals get better from certain ailments, but even better to see an entire community get better.