Going Public: UTHSC Nurse Takes Helm of Shelby County Health Department

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alisa haushalter
Dr. Alisa Haushalter (right), Shelby County Health Department director and UTHSC College of Nursing faculty member, with Michelle McElrath, Public Health Nursing Supervisor

Last year, the Shelby County Health Department was looking for a director who embodied a passion for public health, a commitment to innovation, a taste for change and well honed leadership skills to do the job.

The county got that in January when Alisa Haushalter, DNP, began her new job heading up the agency that has an annual $48,973,709 budget.

Dr. Haushalter isn’t new to Memphis. She earned her Doctorate of Nursing Practice at UTHSC in 2007. Chosen by Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr. and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner, she’s the first director with a nursing background to run the  550-employee agency that has a broad mandate from epidemiology to environmental health to restaurant inspections.

After a three-year stint in the private sector, she was eager to get back to public health. Shelby County, which Dr. Haushalter believes is on the cusp of change, was the ideal place. “I went to school here, and I know the area,” she said. “I also know the history of the department and all the great work that has already happened. I know Mayor Luttrell has been a champion for health and I know the academic institutions are focused on community health.”

Dr. Haushalter earned her undergraduate degree in Nursing from Belmont University in Nashville in 1982 and a Master’s Degree in Nursing with a specialty in Family Practice from Vanderbilt University in 1997.

From 1983 to 2012, she was with the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville serving most recently as director of the Bureau of Population Health Programs and project director of Communities Putting Prevention to Work as well as other positions in the agency. From there, she joined the Nemours Health and Prevention Services in Delaware where she was senior director of the Department of Population Health and project director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Grant.

When Dr. Haushalter decided to go for her doctorate in 2004, she considered several options but kept coming back to UTHSC with its specialty in public health nursing leadership.

“I thought that I would be challenged there,” she said. “I felt that I would learn things that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already experienced by being in the field for so many years.”

When she began, the program was for a Doctor of Nursing Science that later changed to the newer degree of  Doctorate of Nursing Practice. She was particularly interested in the leadership aspect and she was deeply influenced by R. Craig Stotts, RN, DrPH, who was the program head. “He had an exceptional track record as a public health nurse and a public health leader,” she said, “so it was a really good match for me.”

In taking the Health Department position, she also received a faculty appointment at UTHSC.

College of Nursing Dean Wendy M. Likes is pleased that a nurse is directing public health for the community. “From our perspective, the relationship will be good for elevating the presence of nursing within our community,” she said. “Having a nurse lead will allow us opportunities to help lead initiatives to improve health in the community.”

Most health departments around the country are headed by physicians, but there are increasing opportunities for nurses to take leadership roles in public health. Nursing, Dr. Likes said, has a unique view on prevention and wellness.

Dr. Haushalter said the broad scope of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is key to expanding the role of nurses in many aspects of health care.

“There’s an opportunity for us actually to shine in the area of public health and population health management,” she said. “We have skills in that area. We frequently have been trained in population management where oftentimes physicians have not, so now there’s an opportunity for us to step forward and lead and use the information, knowledge and skills we have gained over time.”

As more and more nurses are getting advanced degrees, they’re getting more training in leadership and population health improvement. Finding new ways to connect the community and the clinical is opening the way to greater participation by nurses.

“Also through ACA there’s an emphasis for us to practice at the top of our license,” Dr. Haushalter said, “and there’s encouragement for others to give us opportunities to do that and to know that we do have the skills to lead. We just need to seize those opportunities.”

She said that nurses have always been patient advocates and family advocates and will continue to bring that forward but in more effective ways, and that nurses will be more engaged in traditional research as well as community engaged and community participatory research.

“Nurses are trained to work in teams and trained to work with different disciplines and bring the expertise of all those together whether we’re the convener, the collaborator or the leader,” Dr. Haushalter said.

She says the Health Department has a long history of service to the community and partnering with others, so she is looking at how that can go to the next level. “How do we continue to build our partnerships and take initiatives to scale so that we have improved outcomes at a community level,” she said. “That has to be done with partners – academic partners, whether it’s UT, University of Memphis or others, and also business and political partners.”

Dr. Haushalter said the department will become more nimble and work with other sectors to improve results. “We’re at a time when it’s not evolutionary change anymore,” she said. “With ACA, it has to be more rapid change and that’s revolutionary change.”

And while she’s doing all this, she’ll be working with students and other faculty at the College of Nursing. “I’m excited about the opportunities for grooming students to come into public health and the research potential opportunities as well,” she said.

Dean Likes agrees. “We’ll have more students getting exposure within different operations, but there’s also the ability to have doctoral students work with Dr. Haushalter on specific quality initiatives and support the mission of the Health Department.”

Written by Jon Sparks