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The Office of Public Health Practice Alumni Spotlight Series: Dr. Alexander G. Garza (GRAD PH ’03)

by Office of Public Health Practice
Alex Garza, MD, MPH
Dr. Alexander G. Garza (GRAD PH ’03), Chief Community Health Officer at SSM Health in St. Louis, Missouri

Dr. Alexander G. Garza (GRAD PH ’03) Saint Louis University graduate and Chief Community Health Officer at SSM Health in St. Louis, Missouri recently did a Q&A with the OPHP about public health and learning at SLU.

OPHP: Tell us about your role as Chief Community Health Officer?
AG:
"The role was newly created in August 2020. The majority of my time is spent with the Pandemic Task Force, really since last March. It’s been nonstop. This position was a springboard from the Pandemic Task Force. It became apparent that they needed to develop relationships with community partners. Before this I was Chief Medical Officer,Chief Quality Officer, and Chief Medical Officer for the region."

What do you see as the role of public health in our country today?
"Of course it’s front and center right now, but I think that has also shown the frailty of public health in the country and how under-resourced it is in this country. The pandemic has brought that to the forefront. If you want a vibrant community where everyone feels safe and productive...the economy and community to work... you have to be focused on some of those essentials. We have to do a better job of funding public health in the country, especially at the state and local levels. We’ve taken it for granted and now the pandemic is showing us how far we have to go."

What is your best piece of advice for current public health students?
"Besides studying and going to class and doing all those things, don’t limit yourself in the way that you think about solutions, or where you can apply those solutions to the public. A lot of times we get too narrowly scoped. Public health is great because it allows you to focus on big picture things. You can do a lot of things with public health training."

Tell us about some defining moments in your career?
"Being a paramedic was influential because it gave me the full picture on what patients go through before they get to the hospital. We saw people using the stove to heat their apartment, others without any food. Being a paramedic reveals the living conditions and gives you a lot of perspective on why people are experiencing these health issues. When I was deployed in Iraq with the Civil Affairs Team, I was rebuilding healthcare in 3 different provinces in Iraq. One was Saddam Hussein’s hometown. I spent a lot of time working with the local healthcare leaders. It gave me perspective on other cultures' views of the world...the disparity around the globe.

There's something genuine about humanity - when you’re working there, realizing that we all have a lot in common. There’s a shared sense of purpose and it was a fascinating experience to connect with humans from another place. We get bogged down in what we see as problems, but these places around the world, they have "big P" problems. We did a book drive for the library at the Tikrit College of Medicine. They used to only have a single copy of all the medical textbooks, and students and faculty had to photocopy the pages of the textbooks to share them. They didn’t allow publications from Western countries.

We ended up making contact with the editor of MedScape and wrote a story about what we were doing and made a request for medical textbooks. We populated the entire library. The students and faculty had been so starved for knowledge and were amazed at everything occurring out in the world."

What is the most important thing you learned at SLU?
"The Executive Program was interesting being in the weekend format with other professionals. It was fun to get together those two weekends a month. It helped grow my professional perspective on important things, like how to think about healthcare issues from a global perspective instead of just a clinical perspective. It was eye-opening to see things in a public health lens instead of just a clinical lens."

Where do you see yourself in the next five years or ten years, and how will your MPH from SLU help you get there?
"I really don’t know where I'll be in five years. If you would have asked me five years ago if I would be in this position now, I would've said no. I have the philosophy of taking open doors instead of following a rigid path. When I graduated from residency I wanted to be Chairman of an emergency department, but time went on and I had other opportunities. You have to be really flexible to change your goals. I have no idea where I’ll be in five years. I enjoy what I’m doing right now, but if another door opens up, we’ll see. Having the degree in public health allows a latitude in what you can do. Clinical medicine is narrowly scoped. Public health allows you to use those skills in another position, another job. Having been trained in theinterconnectedness of things gives you that much more opportunity to do other kinds of work."

Dr. Garza on his new role as Chief Community Health Officer:
"If we were going to globally impact healthcare, we needed to move upstream to the social determinants of health to focus on alleviating disparity," Garza said. "We [clinical providers] can’t just be seen as managers of disease processes once people have become sick; we need to prevent people from becoming sick. To do that, you have to work on things outside of healthcare: racism, environment, housing. This encompasses a much larger scale than the delivery of healthcare."

 

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