Who Works in Public Health?

Jay Jaffee
Chemical Health Coordinator, Center for Health Promotion
Minnesota Department of Health

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Jay Jaffee is the MDH Chemical Health Coordinator, within the MDH Center for Health Promotion. Jay has worked in the area of substance abuse prevention for roughly three decades, and has worked at MDH since 1994.

Jay Jaffee
"I didn't really know what public health was until I came to MDH."

How did you first learn about the field of public health?

I think it was probably on my job interview in 1994 (laughing). I had been doing public health work for some time, but I didn’t know it; I didn’t have that context. Until I came to MDH I really didn’t know what “public health” was or that I’d been doing public health work.

What had you been doing before your public health career?

I had been doing substance abuse prevention for 14 years. I started doing health education, both with students and parents. That evolved into community education, which evolved into community organizing and policy work.

In February 1994, I was notified that half of my job was being eliminated. I couldn’t afford to work half time, so I began looking around. I heard there was a position opening up in substance abuse prevention at the Minnesota Department of Health.

In August 1994 I was hired as the Chemical Health Coordinator. Although I’ve now been working in public health for 25 or 26 years, I didn’t know it until about 12 years ago.

Even though you didn’t know it was “public health” at the time, what attracted you to this type of work?

It was somewhat serendipitous. While in college, I got an internship with the “Pharm House” doing substance abuse crisis counseling over the phone. People would call about drug and alcohol issues, either for themselves or a loved one. Later I got involved in giving orientation presentations for co-dependents.

I really enjoyed doing those presentations. I enjoyed learning the information, presenting the information and hearing people’s stories. I heard some pretty amazing stories. Eventually I was running support groups, which was really frustrating. I was working with people who were in really bad living situations, who wanted to help themselves, but with the dynamics of co-dependent relationships….It was really taking a toll. I started looking around for new job, and saw a listing for a prevention job in the schools. I started in January of 1980. That’s how I got into the field.

If you had one piece of advice to share with someone thinking about a career in public health, what would it be?

Jay Jaffee
"If you think you're interested in a career in health promotion, make sure you're also excited about getting out into the community."

I would have to make it clear that the part of public health that I work in, and that I understand, is health promotion—particularly community based health promotion. Health promotion is so much about policy, building relationships and working with others. It’s community organizing. I’ve seen so many students come out of health education programs and be totally shocked that that’s such an important part of this work. If you think you are interested in a career in health promotion, make sure you’re also excited about getting out in the community, working with people, and taking the time to build relationships.

What do you enjoy most about your job, and why?

I’m the Chemical Health Promotion coordinator at MDH. Because we are a 1.5 person program—me and a half-time epidemiologist—we really had to figure out what was the best use of our time.

I’ve realized that what I am is a broker of information. I don’t have to know everything there is to know…but if I can help people find it, or connect them to resources, or strategies or funding or training…that seems to be the best use of my time.

There are a lot of things I enjoy about this work. I like the people I work with. I’ve established a lot of terrific relationships over the years and have enjoyed maintaining those. It’s also satisfying to work at the state level and know that I can help something happen at the local level.

What do you find most challenging in your work?

If you watch TV or read the paper you get the sense that drug abuse - and right now, meth abuse—is so rampant that probably people on all sides of your home are using drugs, and causing trouble and posing a threat to you and your neighbors. Meth abuse is a big problem, and it scares people because of all of the harm it can do to a community.

Jay Jaffee
"I am a broker of information."

Yet, alcohol use and abuse is and always has been a bigger issue in terms of the numbers of people using alcohol and the problems it causes throughout society. People don’t perceive alcohol use to be as big of a threat. That misunderstanding and misinformation about the reality of the situation is really frustrating. The fact that people aren’t seeing the progress that we know is being made is really frustrating.

Is there a particular health issue or community of people you enjoy working with?

I enjoy getting to new groups that haven’t thought much about substance abuse prevention before. We have worked hard to get people to understand that alcohol affects many areas and many people. Most people believe that unless they have an alcoholic in the family that they aren’t affected by it. Yet it’s such a big part of crime, of disease. It affects everyone, at least indirectly, through our taxes. We pay for law enforcement, we pay for corrections, we pay for special education…and then we pay for health insurance, auto insurance, home insurance—it’s phenomenal. It’s really satisfying to go to a new audience and show them how it’s in their best interest to be a part of this.

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

I suspect that the cost of health care is going to be a driving factor. As large numbers of my generation—baby boomers—age, that's going to be a catalyst. Insurance companies, managed care organizations, employers, and government at all levels, are eventually going to say, "We have to do something to prevent these things (health problems) from happening."

If you would like to contact Jay, he can be reached via email at: jay.jaffee@state.mn.us


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