Cathleen D. Bennett recently was sworn in as the 20th Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health after serving as acting commissioner. She joined us for a Take Five.

One of your top priorities after becoming Acting Commissioner in August 2015 was to create an Office of Population Health. How does this new office affect the focus on the health department’s work in New Jersey?

That’s a good question and not one typically asked. We are promoting stronger collaboration among hospitals, local health departments and health care providers. Population Health focuses on keeping healthy people well, preventing illness in those at risk, and keeping those with chronic conditions from getting sicker. Population Health promotes prevention, wellness and equity. The new office has allowed us to re-align our resources and bring together people working on health care on the local level, those in health care delivery, those working in the community and those doing faith-based work. We are knitting together the efforts that are going on to broaden the impact. For example, our Office of Minority and Multicultural Health is working with its grantees, which are community-based organizations to create culturally and linguistically appropriate actions to meet the health needs of our diverse populations.

Do we need to do more to keep people well and not just treat them when they get sick?

The key difference with Population Health is that you no longer will have a system built upon episodic care. Population Health asks, “How can we provide education and tools to help people live healthier lives?” We are working to help people manage chronic conditions and not just receive care that jumps from crisis to crisis. For instance, to improve nutrition and encourage people to eat more healthy fruits and vegetables we have the Healthy Corner Store project, which is finding ways to market healthy foods. We’re promoting the creation of pathways for exercise. You should see what’s happening at the Camden waterfront! It’s a vibrant place for elderly people to congregate and for people to get exercise and get outside. We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice. The drivers include Preventive Services Block Grants and our ShapingNJ Healthy Communities Grant Project.

Besides Zika, what are your top public health priorities for the next 18 months?

Our focus will be on Population Health. There is no question we need to stay focused on what we can do to promote wellness and prevention, such as screenings and early detection. And we will remain focused on how to give people with chronic illness the tools to manage their health. And we are going to continue our work with the Governor’s Facing Addiction Task Force and work on the opioid epidemic. We will continue the significant investments by this administration on integrating behavioral health and primary care. We have $5.5 million in grants to support delivery of health care to our veterans. This includes micro-grants to support veterans and their families because we know the challenges of veterans are not theirs alone.

Do NJ residents have enough information about the quality of the hospitals, surgery centers, and physicians they seek care from?  What more could be done?

Our residents have a great deal of quality information and the department has done a good job to make information accessible and transparent to the public. Our website is organized in a consumer-friendly way. You can find the state health improvement plan on the Healthy NJ 2020 web page and see our state improvement goals and objectives. We have information about quality on our Health Care Quality Assessment website, such as data on health care associated infections, the annual Hospital Performance Report, Cardiac Surgery Report Card and Hospital Patient Staffing reports. We’ve made our Health Care Quality website searchable to help consumers find hospital specific date they are interested in. We are constantly making improvements in making our data more consumer friendly.

How can members of the Quality Institute work with local officials such as mayors and public health officers to address the health challenges we face in New Jersey? Quality Institute members include hospital systems, health plans, large employers, pharmaceutical companies, ACOs, nurses, doctors, physical therapists and others in health care.

For starters, Linda Schwimmer sits on our Quality Improvement Advisory Committee and offers valuable feedback through that group. We also are partnering with the Quality Institute on Healthy New Jersey 2020. Together, we need to look at chronic diseases as a whole as many of the intervention strategies are the same. We used to look at cancer as a standalone disease. We looked at diabetes and hypertension as standalone diseases. Now we recognize that folks often don’t just suffer from one chronic condition. We are looking to support people across the continuum with wellness and use our resources more efficiently.

We work with the Quality Institute members on other projects, such as recognizing health disparities. Our African American Brain Health Initiative works with the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School that engages Newark area residents in adopting healthy lifestyles to support brain health. We know that someone from the community is better able to reach people in that community. As health leaders, we need to encourage our partners to look at health in all policies. Health improvement goes beyond care delivered in the four walls of a hospital or clinical office. Health leaders, physicians and healthcare professionals should connect with local health, faith-based and community organizations to make linkages to residents and broaden their impact on health of their community.