Who Works in Public Health?

Renee Frauendienst, PHN
Director of Public Health, Stearns County Public Health

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Renee Frauendienst is the director of the Public Health Division in Stearns County, Minnesota. Renee is trained as a Public Health Nurse (PHN), and has worked for Stearns County for over two decades. She started as the county’s disease prevention coordinator in the early days of the HIV-AIDS prevention effort, and now directs the county’s public health activities. Renee was recently presented the Jim Parker Leadership Award by her peers in Minnesota.

Renee Frauendienst
"When I hit public health, I knew immediately what I wanted to do."

You started your career in a clinical care setting. What was the hardest part about moving from a treatment to a prevention model?

Actually, it really wasn’t that difficult, because what I found most frustrating working on the clinical side is that there wasn’t anything I could do. They already had it [AIDS]. It’s like the disease prevention and control coordinator job was made for me.

What first attracted you to the field of public health?

When I did my clinical rotations in nursing school there was something about each area I found interesting. But man, when I hit public health I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I liked being able to teach people about the prevention part.

I’ve found that I like working for the public. I really like that we are responsible to the public, not to an institution. The other piece I like about being in a government setting is that we have the ear of politicians [county commissioners]. I have the ability to influence their decisions on policies for the good of the people.

What advice do you have for people thinking about pursuing a career in public health?

If you are looking at going into nursing, and you get to public health, and it sparks your interest, don’t wait. At the time I was going to nursing school they were advising us to “get experience” before going into public health. That’s changed. We are now hiring more new nurses.

Can you give us an example of a mistake you’ve made in your career?

Yes; it was a bad one, too! [Laughing] St. Cloud has an annual festival with family activities. At the time, we had been working on a project an AIDS advocacy organization and wanted to do some family education. We decided to hand out pamphlets at the festival and we talked through what kind of pamphlet to use. The advocacy organization said they had some materials that the Minnesota Department of Health had approved and we went with it.

We had never actually seen the pamphlets: that was our mistake! The day after the festival we started getting phone calls, the St. Cloud Times got involved, and the county commissioners were called. It was a poor choice of pamphlet to share with the general community.

The lesson was, if we are partnering on a project we need to know all the details and follow it to the very end. I have an obligation to make sure that what we are doing is what we want and need to do to reach our goals, and our goal was to talk to families.

Renee Frauendienst
"I've found that I like
working for the public."

What do you enjoy about your current job, and what’s challenging?

One negative challenge is there is so much need, and so much change. As I’ve said before, ‘I love my job, there’s just too much of it!’ There’s a positive side to that challenge too. I really like to look at all of the public health challenges facing a community and try to meet the need. Also, there’s a lot of variety. One of my staff came from a clinical care setting. Every day, she says, “I don’t know how I thought I’d ever get bored!”

Can you give an example of a time in your career when you felt that you made a difference?

One time I can think of recently was last flu season. We brought together over 50 health care providers from competing clinics in our community to discuss what to do about the vaccine shortage.

We said, you have two options; you can leave it how it is, or you can redistribute the vaccine. They wanted the second option, and they wanted us to broker the redistribution. The idea was that they’d pool the available vaccine, and redistribute it to clinics with shortages. We suggested that clinics with vaccine put in 10 percent of their stock. One clinic actually put in 25 percent, and was willing to share more if necessary.

In the end, the providers said, “We think this would have been really awful if public health hadn’t taken the lead.” We attributed our success to the fact that we’ve built trust in our community. It was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had, and it was incredible to sit at the table and to watch people trust us.

If you could predict the future, what do you think will impact the public’s health and why?

I feel that the issue around health disparities, especially in communities of color, is going to be a huge. I also think we need to focus on our youth. Yes, we have an aging population, but the people coming up behind us are the people I think we need to spend time on.

If you could leave an impact on public health what would it be?

I guess the thing I would want to be known for is: She was a person that cared and did something about it.

Renee Frauendienst

If you would like to contact Renee, she can be reached via email at: renee.frauendienst@co.stearns.mn.us


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