High Turnover Among State Health Officials/Public Health Directors: Implications for the Public's Health

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Abstract

Context:

State health officials (SHOs) serve a critical role as the leaders of state public health systems. Despite their many responsibilities, there is no formal process for preparation to become an SHO, and few requirements influence the selection of an SHO. Furthermore, to date, no studies have examined SHO tenure or their experiences.

Objective:

This study examines SHO tenure over time and the relationship between SHO tenure and organizational and state attributes.

Design:

This longitudinal study employed primary data on SHOs and secondary data from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials on organizational attributes of state public health agencies.

Setting:

This study examines SHOs within the United States.

Participants:

SHOs who served in years 1980-2017.

Main Outcome Measures:

Annual average SHO tenure; average SHO tenure by state.

Results:

In the 38 years of this study, 508 individuals served as SHOs in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The average tenure over this period was 4.1 years, with a median tenure of 2.9 years. During the study period, almost 20% of SHOs served terms of 1 year or less. A total of 32 SHOs (32/508 or 6.3%) served for 10 years or longer. Excluding SHOs who served 10 years or longer (n = 32 SHOs who had a collective 478 years of tenure) reduces the average term in office to 3.5 years. The average number of new SHOs per year is 12.3. SHOs appointed by a board of health averaged more than 8 years in office compared with averages just under 4 years for those appointed by governors or secretaries of state agencies.

Conclusions:

There are notable differences in SHO tenure across states. Future research is needed to further examine SHO tenure, effectiveness, job satisfaction, transitions, and the relationship between SHOs and state health. It may be valuable to expand on opportunities for new SHOs to learn from peers who have moderate to long tenures as well as SHO alumni. Given that average SHO tenure is approximately 4 years and that an SHO could be thrust into the national spotlight at a moment's notice, governors may want to consider experience over partisanship as they appoint new SHOs.

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