James.qxp Sept Oct 2018 web (2) - Page 35

he motto of the Georgia
Department of Public Health
is “We Protect Lives.” Indeed,
many Georgians don’t realize
that— from dealing with the West
Nile virus to trauma care to opioids— the charge of this vital
department is broad. Officially,
DPH is the lead agency in preventing disease, injury and disability; promoting health and
well-being; and preparing for and
responding to disasters
from a health perspective.
With that kind of mandate, one might think the
department has a long and storied history. It was not so long ago
however, that the DPH was not even
its own state agency.
In 2011, the General Assembly
restored DPH as its own agency after
more than 30 years under other
departments. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald
was the new agency’s first commissioner, having served as director of
the Division of Public Health before
the division became a department.
By 2017, the executive branch department was comprised of more than 6,000
employees and a budget of approximately $275 million. They help fund and collaborate with the state’s
159 county health departments and 18 public health
districts. Restaurant inspections, swimming pool
checks and the flu vaccine are all in some ways courtesy of the DPH.
Patrick O’Neal was appointed interim commissioner
in 2017 when Fitzgerald was tapped to lead the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the
announcement, Gov. Nathan Deal noted O’Neal’s
“extensive experience, vast medical knowledge and
strong leadership capabilities” that would help make for
a seamless transition. O’Neal was previously the director
of health protection at DPH. The Division of
Health Protection has a wide mandate as well,
which certainly prepared O’Neal to lead the
department. Health Protection covers everything from the Chronic Disease Prevention
Section to Environmental Health to the
Office of HIV/AIDS.
The Commissioner’s Contributions
O’Neal’s experience in Georgia goes back a long
way. He was born in the Peach State but
moved to Florida as a small child. He
attended Davidson College
and got his medical degree
from Tulane University. He
had an internship in
Portland before entering the
Air Force and becoming a ight
surgeon in Vietnam in 1970-71.
O’Neal came back to Georgia
following Vietnam to begin
private practice. For 29
years, O’Neal practiced
emergency medicine at
Dekalb Medical Center and
was Regional Medical Director
for EMS in metro Atlanta his
last few years there before
becoming Medical Director for
the Office of EMS/Trauma in the
Georgia Division of Public Health (then
still under the Department of Community Health).
Before he was appointed commissioner, O’Neal was
honored with the Governor’s Public Safety Award for
Outstanding Contribution to Profession— one of the
few recipients who was not explicitly a public safety
professional. His nomination for the award noted his
years of service in public health and to the EMS specically. “During his nearly 50 years of service to the medical profession, no one has done more to advance the
EMS profession, nor has been a more passionate or


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