Community health champion
[ Spring 2008 ]
Florida’s First Surgeon General Takes her Message on the Road
In 2007, more than a fifth of Florida’s approximately 18 million residents lacked health insurance, and 23 percent were obese, according to America’s Health Rankings, an annual state-by-state report from the United Health Foundation. The Sunshine State has the highest percentage of residents over 60 in the nation, according to the Department of Elder Affairs. And by 2000 Census estimates, nearly a quarter of the population speaks a language other than English at home, chiefly Spanish.
As Florida’s top public health advocate, Ana Viamonte Ros, a 2005 graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), faced this daunting set of challenges when she stepped into the role of secretary of the Department of Health in January 2007. Announcing the appointment, Florida Governor Charlie Crist praised Viamonte Ros’ “passion for health care and true drive for public service.” Seven months later, under new legislation, she was named the state’s first surgeon general.
Power to the People
Since then, Viamonte Ros, 51, has been spreading a message that she’s branded the “Three Ps:” prevention, preparedness, and personal responsibility. Her office’s bilingual media campaign focuses on actions Floridians have the power to control and change, such as getting health screenings, quitting smoking, and creating a disaster preparedness kit with canned foods and extra medications, an important consideration in this coastal, hurricane-prone area.
She’s also made it a goal this year to visit each of the 67 county offices of Florida’s large, decentralized public health system, which employs roughly 20,000 people. A key objective, she says, is to bring together business and civic leaders and local health departments to share ideas and pool resources. In Brevard County, for example, a dental association will join with their health department in providing dental care to low-income families.
The American-born daughter of Cuban refugees, Viamonte Ros is deeply invested in ensuring that all Floridians have equal access to health care. She explored this interest at HSPH, where she earned a Master of Public Health degree in family and community health in 2005. At Brookside Community Health Center in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, she and a fellow student developed a project to promote mental health in Hispanic women by linking them with support services. The project received HSPH’s Gareth Green Award for Excellence in Public Health Practice.
After graduation, Viamonte Ros organized and monitored clinical operations at Armor Correctional Health Services, a Miami-based agency that provides medical services to inmates. By focusing on bolstering inmates’ physical and mental health, she worked to help them reenter society as healthy individuals and stay out of jail.
Patient care is woven into the fabric of Viamonte Ros’ life. It started early in her childhood in Philadelphia, where she was raised by physician parents. “My mother was a pathologist,” she says. “You’d open the refrigerator and find specimens.” There was never any doubt that she’d follow a similar path. She earned her medical degree, with honors, in 1983 from the University of Miami School of Medicine, and did her residency training in radiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in Washington, DC.
“The importance of education was instilled in me very early on,” Viamonte Ros says. “It was the only thing my parents and grandparents could bring with them from Cuba. They lost everything else.”
Her parents, who were able to resume their medical careers in the United States, also emphasized the importance of public service. Viamonte Ros passed these values on to her own children, Pablo Ros AB ’06 and Cristina Ros AB ’08, during the years she took time off to raise them. Although headed for careers in law, they still volunteer with their mother on medical missions to developing countries with the non-profit group Health Through Walls. The three have visited prisons in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, providing HIV prevention education, testing, and treatment, in addition to donated supplies, to inmates who are “the poorest of the poor,” Viamonte Ros says. In Haiti, she helped set up a “telehealth” system that allows inmates suspected of having tuberculosis to describe their symptoms to a doctor.
Viamonte Ros says she is driven by a belief in health care as a human right. In Florida, her agenda includes evaluating whether the state has enough health care professionals at all levels to meet the needs of an expanding and aging population.
Her work is drawing praise. Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine recently called her a “formidable champion of health care” and commended her commitment to the underserved. In introducing her at an event sponsored by the Hispanic American Student Association, he said, “When South Florida is a medical destination where everybody can access health care, Ana will be the person to thank.”
Amy Roeder is the development communications coordinator for the Office for Resource Development at HSPH.
Photo: Kent Dayton/HSPH