Alumnus profile: Umair A. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., Executive Director, Harris County Public Health

An interview with Umair A. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., Executive Director, Harris County Public Health
UTHealth School of Public Health alumnus, Master of Public Health, Health Management and Policy, 2001

Umair Shah photo
Umair A. Shah, M.D., M.P.H.

No day is the same for Umair A. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., executive director of Harris County Public Health (HCPH) and this year’s spring commencement speaker. One moment he might be speaking about health-related innovation to the Texas Legislature, the next sending out a tweet about Zika. And that’s how he likes it. “I’m someone who enjoys variety. It’s part of my personality,” he says.

Shah’s distinguished career reflects his affinity for diverse experiences. Before joining HCPH, he earned degrees in philosophy, medicine and public health; interned at the World Health Organization (WHO); worked as an ER physician at Houston’s Michael E. Debakey VA Medical Center; and served as chief medical officer for the Galveston County Health District.

Though sought nationally for his expertise, Shah remains actively engaged in both patient care and academic teaching locally. He frequently returns to UTHealth School of Public Health to engage in public health discussion and events. Shah took a break from his hectic schedule to talk about his school days, career and the future of public health.

Tell me how you became interested in public health.

Two stories come to mind:

When I was an undergrad pre-med student, my molecular biology professor said he couldn’t see me behind a microscope. I was more of a “people” person. After a while, I saw his point and transitioned from molecular biology to philosophy. I wanted to connect with the humanities. I believed that science was only a part of health. You also have to connect with people.

Then, when I was in medical school, I read a fascinating piece about smallpox eradication. The WHO had managed to eradicate it from the planet in the 50s, 60 and 70s. In one fell swoop, a disease that impacted millions of people was gone. That was so powerful to me. The next thing you know, I was on a flight to Geneva to intern at the WHO. I spent months there learning about public health. I came to feel that while clinical care was critical, improving health was broader than just treating individual patients. That sparked my interest in a public health career.

Also, I can’t leave out my upbringing. My parents were immigrants from Pakistan. They taught me that it’s critical to do good for your community and your neighborhood. And they taught me to always ask two questions: ask ‘why?’ and ‘why not.’

What’s the best part of your job?

It’s the fact that no one day is the same as the last. The other part is that I just love people. I love connecting with our staff and the people who work here, and helping the community as a whole. It is exciting and a privilege to do those things. When we make decisions here at HCPH, it has a community-wide affect.

What’s the biggest challenge?

People don’t always recognize the value proposition that public health brings. When we do our job, it is behind the scenes and often invisible. When people don’t know what you do is valuable, they are not willing to advocate for it, value it, and invest in it. When public health goes as it should, people don’t know about it. For example, health inspectors prevent you from getting sick when you eat out. And mosquito sprayers spraying late at night help prevent West Nile virus. But if you don’t have the sirens or big lights like our other response partner agencies, these types of public health efforts often go unnoticed.

So how do you raise awareness about the importance of public health?

All of us have an obligation to engage with the communities we serve. Whether that means I’m tweeting about health, or our staff pushes health information out through other means…at the end of the day it is a team effort. Health happens in the community, as we say, “LLWWP” — where we live, learn, work, worship and play. We look for opportunities where people are doing everyday things, and try to be part of that occasion. For example, screenings for blood pressure at a local faith-based organization, or setting up “play stations” at a community event to engage kids to get active and teach them about how to be healthy and fit.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

Probably being named Health Department of the Year in 2016 by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), for our work in innovation, engagement and equity. For instance, we were the first local governmental agency in Texas to use smartphone technology to treat tuberculosis patients. The program has been shown to reduce the stigma of the disease and increase medication adherence, and it is more cost effective than traditional methods. We’ve also developed a mobile app that brings together many of our public health services. When fully complete, you can use it to reunite with a lost pet, report mosquito concerns, or check food inspection reports for restaurants. We’re doing some really innovative stuff. Also, the other highlight has been the ability to continue to balance patient care and seeing things from the individual perspective while also seeing the public health notion of impacting the broader community.

How did your training at UTHealth School of Public Health prepare you for your career?

The biggest thing I learned was that public health was not just about what you see around you. My training allowed me instead to understand there’s a formal framework for public health practice. The principles of epidemiology, biostatistics, and health care management — those have stayed with me, and help me with my work today. Taking theory into practice, and relating practice back to theory – that bidirectional vantage point is important for a public health practitioner.

I was also fascinated by the school’s incredible diversity in perspectives, national origin and interests – related to faculty and students as well as the coursework being taught. I went to school with people from all over the world. Anytime I wanted to, I could always start a conversation with someone and learn something new, or hear a viewpoint I hadn’t considered before.

What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in public health?

Be as practical as you can. Don’t focus solely on theory or practice. There needs to be an intersection of both elements, so that the end of the day they bind together. Also, my parents taught me to “do well” and “do good.” What they meant by that, is that while it is great to strive for career success, it is also important to make your work meaningful. And always ask questions.

What does the future hold for public health?

The public health field remains critical to the success of communities, but we will continue to have the challenge of showing what we do is valuable. We need to do a better job of connecting with the community and telling our story. In getting our message across, we can’t get lost in obscure “public health speak” and difficult to understand scientific terms.

We have an incredible foundation, but we can’t sit on our laurels. The next emergency is around the corner. The next outbreak is about to happen. We have to be really good at ensuring we are there, connected and well-resourced, so we can continue to serve the community.

— Interview by Anissa Anderson Orr