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WesternU’s Ray Symposium examines the importance of public health leadership

by Rodney Tanaka

May 2, 2024

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A U.S. Navy Rear Admiral who has served on the frontlines of public health crises provided insight into the value of prioritizing public health and serving as “infectious” leaders.

Scott Giberson, RPh, MPH, DSc, presented “Be Infectious. Navigating Through an Era of Plagues, Politics, and Public Health” at Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy’s 18th annual Ray Symposium April 25, 2024. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

Retired Rear Adm. Scott Giberson, RPh, MPH, DSc, presented “Be Infectious. Navigating Through an Era of Plagues, Politics, and Public Health” at Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy’s 18th annual Ray Symposium April 25, 2024. Giberson retired as an Assistant U.S. Surgeon General and two-star admiral with the U.S. Public Health Service. He is the CEO of AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, a global company that provides medical and public health services and solutions to the U.S. government, international aid organizations, humanitarian concerns, the private sector, and state government agencies in a wide range of remote and challenging environments. Giberson said the purpose of this lecture is to develop future leaders.

“My goal is to provide you with tools to catalyze change and tools to make different decisions than what we do now,” Giberson said.

These future health care providers in this lecture hall are important because in a health-related crisis, people will look to them as leaders, he said.

“They’re going to go to the nurse that’s their neighbor or the pharmacist at the store that they know or the physician that’s down the street from them,” Giberson said. “They’re going to ask you what to do because they’re not going to know what to do. You are the front lines of public health. What you tell them is incredibly impactful and influential, probably more so than any government leader right now. That’s an incredibly powerful position and we’ve seen that happen across the pandemic.”

Public health is the science of protecting and improving an individual’s health or a community’s health, Giberson said.

“All the collective interventions we make – the vaccination programs, the clean water, they’re all public health interventions and they reduce the burden of disease or are considered preventative measures. That’s public health. But you don’t hear that in the news. Public health is invisible. Every single thing that happened during the pandemic except for critical care is there, whether it’s research, diagnosis, response, or public health policy,” Giberson said. “I don’t think its purposefully ignoring public health. I just think it’s the way we present public health. The water we drink, the food we eat, the shelter we have, the vaccination programs, the maternal child health, everything is public health.”

Retired Rear Adm. Scott Giberson (left) and WesternU President Robin Farias-Eisner, MD, PhD, MBA. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

The U.S. has the lowest life expectancy of all large wealthy countries, Giberson said. The U.S. puts about 10-20% of health care funding toward modifiable factors that affect health. That means 80-90% have nothing to do with preventing anything from happening, which means we have a sick care system.

“We spend hardly anything on public health and prevention, which means we have more people who get ill,” Giberson said. “We spend more money on direct patient care. The more money spent on direct patient care, they either keep public health and prevention spending flat or decrease the funding for it. It’s a negative cycle.

“As health care providers, even though you deliver sick care, make sure you have a comprehensive holistic approach to everything you do,” Giberson added.

A pathogen can travel across the globe in 36 hours. Information can travel across the globe in 0.36 seconds, Giberson said. The communication freeway has to be dealt with by leaders who understand what it means.

The communication freeway and social media are a potential public health crisis and a barrier to response, and we need to take a sophisticated approach in dealing with them.

We have already seen the negative impact. Fifty percent of 18–29-year-olds say they are almost always connected or online, and there is a direct correlation between the time online and anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, Giberson said. How do we correct these things?

“First, filter through the noise.  Make sure what you’re looking at is factual, is confirmed,” Giberson said. “I believe the social media virus is the most dangerous and insidious pathogen of our time. It’s a public health crisis. I’ve seen the impact on so many people. Yes, it’s a phenomenal tool, it is powerful and it can help in many different ways. But it is dangerous so be aware of how it’s impacting people.”

Giberson said he listened to every TED Talk on leadership. He explained infectious leadership, the ability to create a positive condition in others.

“Infect somebody with a positive condition,” he said. “It’s the art of a great leader to figure out how to do that and everybody is going to be a little different. It doesn’t matter what kind of leadership style you have, you can literally change someone’s physiology in their brain.”

There is a physiological difference in a good leader and how people view them because it’s the people’s perception of whether you infected them or not, not yours. Recognize it is always somebody else’s choice to view you as a leader. If not, you’re just in a leadership position, Giberson said.

Every day is a choice. How do you change the culture of a company or an organization or a school? It’s what happens when you’re not around, what we used to consider water cooler talk.

“When I’m not around, somebody is going to be talking about me – good or bad. I want that talk to be good,” Giberson said. “As I infect different people with positive conditions when I’m not around they start talking about me in a positive way. They do the work for me. They’re a force multiplier of positive conditions. It changes the culture.”

This generation has had to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, anthrax, Ebola, a recession, and political polarization, Giberson said. The Greatest Generation that we know went through both world wars, through a recession, and Spanish flu. They became over time the Greatest Generation.

“You could be the next Greatest Generation. You’ve gone through so much,” Giberson said. “But the Greatest Generation stepped up and did the right thing. So my charge to you is to step up and do the right thing.”

The Ray Symposium, an annual speaker series, honors Max D. Ray, MS, PharmD, Dean Emeritus of the WesternU College of Pharmacy. As Professor and Dean from 1996-2006, he created a stimulating educational environment that fostered excellence and professionalism.

A representative from U.S. Rep. Norma Torres’ office presented certificates of recognition to Drs. Scott Giberson and Max Ray, who attended in person. Ray said prior to the presentation that when he visits campus he is reminded of two broad visions that WesternU Founding President Philip Pumerantz, PhD, had for the University.

“One was that it would represent the full spectrum of the health professions. The second was that we would all work together,” Ray said. “Dr. Pumerantz was a strong advocate of interprofessional education, practice, and research. When Dr. Dan Robinson became dean, he championed the same causes. Dan is a strong proponent of interprofessional teaching and learning, collaborative team-based health care and interdisciplinary research.”

One of the first things Robinson did after taking over as dean is he established an annual symposium to address a broad range of topics of broad importance in health care.

“Although the College of Pharmacy sponsors and hosts this event, I think it was Dan’s idea that this was the College’s gift to the University and to the health community at large,” Ray said. “The speakers have been explorers, visionaries, and truth tellers. It was one of the greatest honors of my professional career to have this symposium series named for me. Dan, I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but thank you.”

Three deans (left to right): COP Dean Sunil Prabhu, BPharm, PhD, COP Dean Emeritus Max D. Ray, MS, PharmD, and COP Dean Emeritus Daniel C. Robinson, PharmD, FASHP. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

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