May 4, 2007

Cooper marks 100 days as state’s health commissioner

Featured Image

Susan Cooper, M.S.N., R.N.

Cooper marks 100 days as state's health commissioner

Susan R. Cooper, M.S.N., R.N., Commissioner of Health for the State of Tennessee, recently sat down with the VUMC Reporter as she marked her first 100 days in office. Cooper has more than 10 years worth of affiliation with the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. As commissioner, she is responsible for more than 3,500 employees, facilities in 95 counties as well as 21 health-related regulatory boards and nine committees.

What impact does the Department of Health have on Tennesseans?

No one realizes how big this department is and the wide range of our duties. We are responsible for protecting the health of the public, promoting health and improving health. We have responsibility for every single person who not only lives here, but who might travel here and visit the hotels and restaurants that we are responsible for inspecting. We have facilities in each county; oversee the state labs and all regulatory aspects of all professionals in health care fields. It is an extraordinary responsibility.

How do you choose your priorities?

I choose them the way you eat an elephant – one bite at a time. I have to focus on the core functions of public health to assess where are we today and where we need to be. One of my biggest immediate priorities was jumping right in to the budget process and taking a look at funding programs that need to be in place. This year's recommended budget is about $607 million, and it's a combination of federal funds, state funds and other revenue.

Are there any programs that are near and dear to your heart?

I'm interested in transitional services and making sure the Safety Net stays in place. I also want to bring prevention back into the picture of promoting health and fitness. Last year, we did a lot of work with Project Diabetes and the GetFit TN campaign. We have had a great response to these programs that raise awareness and encourage people to become more active and make better nutritional choices. I have a responsibility to all citizens, but especially to children, and our youth programs are addressing four key behaviors – physical activity, pour nutrition, tobacco use and alcohol use.

Are you working on any new initiatives?

Yes. If Smoke-Free Tennessee legislation passes and if we get the funding we requested, we have laid out a very significant tobacco prevention, cessation and control program. Everything we do is built on a foundation of science and evidence-based programs. We want to implement programs that will create a return on our investment from both a financial and health outcomes standpoint. Prevention is about making a front-end expenditure where you will see the largest benefits 10 or 20 years down the road.

How do you view your role as commissioner?

My job is really a service role. I'm a problem solver and believe that to accomplish our goals, we need to facilitate dialogues between groups. That way, we will come up with ideas much bigger than any one organization or person could do on their own. We need to focus on who will benefit from our work and how to leverage our collective resources. We are not going to allow our state to be 47th out of 50 anymore when it comes to health. We are not going to allow our children to be at risk for becoming overweight or being overweight. We are not going to allow smoking in areas that all Tennesseans may use. Let's draw a line in the sand – a line based on science and the good of the whole. I believe it is doable.

What have you learned in your first 100 days in office?

I learn something new every day. I have learned there is a difference between policy and politics. There are extraordinary people across this state that want to do the right thing but are looking for tools, guidance or encouragement. I have learned that there is a great role for public and private partnerships to help improve the health status of our state.

The ability to put your footprint on it is really humbling. It is a responsibility that I take very, very seriously. I am trying to drill down to the core problems and bring great minds together. The health status of our state ought to be the one thing we can all agree on.