Long-time APHA member Mel Shipp, OD, DrPH, MPH, took the helm as APHA’s president at the close of last year’s 139th APHA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. In addition to president, Shipp has served on APHA’s Executive Board as treasurer and chair of the Association’s Finance Committee. He was also the founding chair of APHA’s Education Committee and has held several positions as a member of APHA’s Vision Care Section. A nationally known expert in the field of vision care, Shipp has served as an advisor to a number of federal health agencies, such as the National Eye Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shipp is currently dean of the Ohio State University College of Optometry. To learn more about Shipp’s thoughts on public health, visit The Nation’s Health, APHA’s official newspaper, to read his regular president’s column.

Q: What are your top priorities as the new president of APHA? What do you hope to accomplish during your term?

My priorities for my year as president are influenced by the needs of the Association and the opportunities to advance public health in America and abroad. With respect to APHA, we must strengthen the Association by increasing its membership, acquiring additional financial resources and expanding engagement with APHA’s state and regional public health Affiliates. These objectives will enhance APHA’s ability to be the “go-to” organization for public health expertise and advocacy.

Relative to our nation and the world, APHA must continue its efforts to protect the environment, promote primary prevention and improve access to high-quality health services. Although difficult to measure, successful public health interventions can significantly reduce human suffering and health care costs. Our challenge is to quantify and communicate the impact of successful public health interventions.

Q: Who or what inspired you to join the public health field? And what motivates you as an advocate for public health’s continued success?

I stumbled into the field of public health by chance. I had finished my doctor of optometry degree and had practiced optometry for about four years when I decided to pursue another graduate degree. Initially, I considered the ocular pharmacology and ocular pathology fields, but came to the conclusion that I wanted to broaden my perspectives and understanding of health. Naturally, public health was a better fit.

I have always been motivated to help and serve people. Public health is about helping people, particularly the most vulnerable, so I have a natural affinity for public health and enjoy working with people who share that preference.

Q: You’re originally trained in optometry and you’re the first-ever optometrist to lead APHA. How do you view the intersection between your first field and public health?

Public health strives to protect and preserve the health and well-being of individuals and communities. This includes not only the length of life, but also the quality of life. Surveys have shown that people fear blindness and vision impairment more than most of the leading causes of death. Also, studies have observed that visually impaired people expressed a willingness to give up years of life in exchange for better vision.

During a comprehensive eye examination, eye care practitioners can not only evaluate eye health, but also observe changes associated with health conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Frequently, these observations are made before other symptoms occur. Thus, eye examinations provide opportunities for early identification, referral and treatment of conditions which otherwise might result in more advanced conditions and or the need for more costly interventions. This is the essence of public health: Protecting, preserving and enhancing the quality of life.

Q: It’s a difficult time for public health in America. Budgets are tight, staff and services are being cut, and public health’s capacity to respond to emerging threats is in danger. While the outlook can seem grim, do you believe it’s also an opportunity for public health to reinvent itself? And if so, how?

Public health is facing a crisis. At this critical time, our public health workforce is being asked to do more with less. Public health workers across the country are forced to turn away individuals seeking traditionally offered services like vaccinations, STD screening and tobacco cessation. Further, cuts in preparedness funding have undermined the public health system’s ability to respond effectively to emergencies. In essence, the safety net that public health has always provided is slowly being chipped away.

This is a real problem. It is imperative that we address this roll back of years of investment and capacity building through evidence-based research and advocacy. We must also tell compelling stories about public health’s impact on people’s lives and hold policy-makers accountable for decisions that threaten our nation’s health.

But this is also a time of opportunity. It is a chance to strengthen partnerships with non-traditional partners. For example, in my state of Ohio, when funding cuts threatened to eliminate the state’s tobacco cessation quitline, public health workers allied with the private sector—including insurers—to keep the quitline alive.

It is also a good time to explore new technologies and modes of communication, such as social media platforms, and leverage these tools to not only promote health, but also save money.

Q: The Affordable Care Act’s $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund represents a historic U.S. investment in prevention and population-based health. How hopeful are you that such interventions will transform our current system from one that focuses on treatment to one that promotes prevention?

The Prevention and Public Health Fund is an enormous opportunity. Monies from this fund are already flowing to communities across the nation in support of evidence-based community health programs. One of the most significant aspects of the fund is its support of activities targeting the root causes of disease, poor health and disability, namely the social determinants of health.

I believe the most important transformation to make in our current health care system is to place a higher emphasis on prevention. As we address issues like the environment, income inequality, nutrition and access to health services, we will give people the tools and skills to manage their own health status. Ultimately, this will improve health and reduce health care costs.

It is important to impress upon decision-makers that the Prevention and Public Health Fund was created to complement current public health funding, not to supplant such funding. The later is a zero-sum game scenario — there will not be an ability to support the nation’s new strategic focus on prevention and enhancing primary health care if this funding isn’t used for its intended purpose. This is a real threat. There have already been efforts by Congress to eliminate this fund entirely. It is important that APHA members let decision-makers know that they support this fund and explain its importance to their communities and our nation.

Q: As a longtime active member of APHA, you’ve seen the difference that APHA’s collective voice can make. In what ways would you encourage you fellow APHA members to become more active in the Association?

Our Association aims to protect all Americans and their communities from preventable, serious health threats and strives to assure community-based health promotion, disease prevention activities and preventative health services are universally accessible in the United States. During its 139 years of existence, our Association has advanced an appreciation of public health threats, developed interventions to mitigate those threats and advocated for the health interests of the vulnerable members of our society. Yet, our country’s health indices lag behind most developed countries. In other words, there is still work to do.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” The passage of the Affordable Care Act is a long awaited and sorely needed opportunity for our country to address the injustice embodied in this quote. Presently, the health reform law is under scrutiny and attack. For the sake of those who will benefit by this law, we must ensure that it is successfully implemented.

How do we do this? We must expand our Association’s influence and impact at local, state and national levels through member engagement and advocacy at the local, state and national levels. We must tap into the interest, talent and enthusiasm of our state Affiliates, Sections, Special Primary Interest Groups, Forums, Caucuses and Student Assembly. We must make our voices heard. We must proactively unite with like-minded organizations to ensure that we build upon the impressive legacy of our nation’s public health advances.

I would encourage APHA members to sign up for APHA Action Alerts. I would also encourage members to join and become active in their state or regional public health Affiliate to make a difference locally. Lastly, since there is strength in numbers, I would encourage each member to renew their membership and bring one new or former member to APHA.