Stephen_Owen2Working to create a healthy population requires a deep understanding of how to improve the well-being of entire sections of society.

 

That’s the expertise Stephen J. Pont, MD, MPH brings to the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Office of Science and Population Health, which he joined as medical director in November.

Previously medical director for Austin’s public school system, he has spent much of his career fighting the obesity epidemic, particularly in children. Dr. Pont’s numerous appointments and health initiatives include serving as the founding medical director of Dell Children’s Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity, and co-founding and serving as the inaugural chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Obesity. Most recently Dr. Pont was a lead author on the AAP policy statement “Stigma Experienced by Children and Adolescents With Obesity.”

Texas Medicine caught up with Dr. Pont a few months after he started at DSHS to learn more about his goals and the challenges the department will have to address. 

Dr. Pont stressed the importance of every sector of health care working together, which includes physicians taking on leadership roles.

“Only with collaboration across all sectors will we achieve the DSHS vision of a healthy Texas,” he said. 

What are your priorities for your new position?

We are now laser-focused on public health.  

The Office of Science and Population Health’s initial initiatives are first, to work internally and externally, and with partners across the state, to develop a handful of broad health priorities for the state, with short- and long-term goals. Collaboration and partnership will be key if we are to be successful. Second, to assess the data we collect and compile at DSHS and identify opportunities to use that data to be even more helpful inside and outside of DSHS. Third, to form a council of DSHS physicians and enhance communication and collaboration with physicians working in public and population health across the state. 

What public health challenges and threats do you foresee in Texas?

We’re a really big state, and there are a lot of active and potential threats we will continue to address through prevention, preparation, and intervention. We have a huge amount of land to cover, and our geography includes dense cities, sparsely populated counties, an extensive coastline, and an international border. In addition to infectious diseases, natural disasters, and outbreaks, there is great opportunity to improve chronic conditions across the state, and especially among populations who experience worse health outcomes. 

What can be done to improve Texas’ HPV vaccination rates?

Immunizations are so effective that we don’t see a lot of those infectious diseases any longer, and that can lead some to think immunizations are no longer needed. Recent outbreaks among unimmunized folks speak to the need to keep immunizations up to date. We must continue to help everyone to fully understand the importance of immunizations and to know that they are safe.

For HPV, I think it’s important to see that this is a cancer vaccine. That’s why this one specifically is so important. Do I want to keep my kids from developing a preventable form of cancer? Absolutely! And that’s why my sons have and will receive the vaccine, to protect them and their future wives. 

What can your department do to address childhood obesity?

We need to think of good nutrition and physical activity as medicine that we and our patients need to take daily. The magnitude of the challenge and all the reasons why we’re facing the obesity pandemic are going to take all of us working together, within the clinic and in the community, if we’re going to be successful. 

We also need to be mindful that our words are powerful. For most, guilt and blame don’t motivate long-term healthy change, they just make people feel bad, and that drives people to less healthy behaviors. We physicians, who unfortunately are offenders regarding weight stigma, need to think about how we can effectively help our patients become empowered to make healthier decisions without using guilt as a misintended motivator. Clinically, I remind myself: “Be nice. Be patient.” Because that will most effectively support our patients’ healthy changes.

Tex Med. 2018;114(5):22-27
May 2018 Texas Medicine Contents
Texas Medicine Main Page

Last Updated On

February 26, 2019

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Immunization | Obesity | Public Health

David Doolittle

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Dave Doolittle is editor of Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. Dave grew up in Austin, where he attended culinary school as well as the University of Texas. He spent years covering Central Texas for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. He is the father of two girls, a proud Longhorn, and an avid motorsports fan.

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