What do breastfeeding, sanitation, vaccines, and lead paint have in common? Public health.

Public health's role in promoting routine immunizations has increased lifespans for all Michiganders.

“What do breastfeeding, overflowing septic tanks, blood pressure, and lead paint have in common?” Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health (MALPH), asks this question in order to give some insight into how broad the reach of local public health really is. Public health, according to MALPH’s website, is “a complex system which protects people from unsafe or hazardous conditions and provides methods of promoting good health and preventing disease” through a community’s local health department. MALPH assists Michigan’s local health departments in serving their communities better.

A voluntary association for Michigan’s health departments, MALPH provides advocacy and support around decisions made by the state legislature addressing public health, MALPH also connects the state’s health organizations with each other. In all, 45 health departments serve Michigan’s 83 counties, and all 45 are current members of MALPH.

Norm HessYours, Mine, and Ours — Public Health recently spoke with Hess about MALPH and the many important roles that public health plays.
Q. What do you oversee as MALPH’s executive director?

A. My role is to represent the interests of local health departments before the state legislature, several departments of the state, and other organizations like the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. We also do lots of things to try and support our members like leadership and communications training and help to support their efforts at rebuilding their workforce.

Q. What kinds of support does MALPH provide to its members?

A. A lot of what we do is connect the health departments to each other since they’re spread across the state. We try to bring to the forefront things that are affecting all of our state’s health departments to either ask for more funding or, talk with the legislature — rather than them calling all 45 of them, they can talk to us to arrange conversations to implement things better.

2023 marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services development, and it’s due to its existence that life expectancy in Michigan has increased by 30 years. New laws regarding water system construction were passed in order for homes and businesses to have access to clean and safe water in the 1930s, and vaccines for diseases — like whooping cough in 1940 — were developed and are still used to this day.

New public health laws regarding water system construction were passed in the 1930s.

Q. What is public health and what does it entail?

A. Public health can mean different things to different people. If you’ve built a house, you went to the health department for a septic permit. If you’re traveling out of the country, maybe you got vaccinated at the health department. There are dozens of programs that health departments run in broad categories, and not every health department has the same services. Any threat to the health of the community falls into the category of public health.

Q. Why is it important for Michiganders to understand what public health is and does?

A. There’s a lot riding on public health, and people don’t always realize it. You wouldn’t be able to build houses. There would be no one to offer septic permits. No one would be inspecting restaurants to see if they hold their meat at the proper temperature. There would be no one who could monitor how many kids are in the hospital with RSV. There are basic core services that all health departments provide. Everywhere there’s a basis of commonality, but then those things are tailored depending on local circumstances. If your health department went away, it would have an impact on the economy in ways people may not understand. 

Restaurant and other health inspections are part of public health.

Q. How would life in Michigan be different without a public health association like MALPH?

A. There would be a lot more variation in the ways health departments operate. There’s always going to be variation, it has to be based on their local conditions, but I think that it would be much more difficult. We talk to all of our people, figure out priority for the legislature so I can go and speak on behalf of public health. It’s very difficult to interact with the legislature from 45 individual points of view. They’ll definitely interact with their local legislature as well, but we don’t have 45 different opinions floated up to the top. 

Hess also mentions how the COVID-19 pandemic put a significant strain on local public health in a variety of ways, particularly in the way that organizations communicated with the communities they serve and with each other. He hopes to see public health agencies rebuild their workforces so the communities they serve know they can trust their local public health departments. 

Q: What does the future of public health in Michigan look like?

A. Our workforce, we’re trying to retain the folks we have and attract new people, connect with our communities more, and help people to understand the value of public health. We’re excited about trying to rebuild the trust that people have in local public health, and help people to know that we live in their community. We send our kids to the same schools you do, and these are things we take into account when making those choices. We’re not some unknowable government threat with no face.

For more information on MALPH and the state of public health in Michigan, visit malph.org.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Water treatment plant photo by Ashley Brown.
Photo of Norm Hess and MALPH logo courtesy MALPH.
Restaurant photo by Elle Hughes via Pexels.com.
Vaccination photo courtesy the CDC via Pexels.com.
Children photo by Cottonbro Studio via Pexels.com.

The Yours, Mine, and Ours — Public Health series highlights how our state's  public health agencies keep us healthy, safe, and informed about issues impacting physical and mental health in our communities, homes, workplaces, and schools. The series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Alliance for Local Public Health.

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