By Chris Adams

Dr. Edward Ehlinger has seen public health from all levels – from rural areas to universities, cities, states and the nation.

But he learned early on that treating patients one-by-one was dropping a pebble into the ocean – it wouldn’t have an impact, except for those individual patients. “I could not treat the community into health – there had to be a different approach,” he said.

He also came to realize that getting the word out on important public health matters requires a healthy relationship with the media. Ehlinger, now commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, gave National Press Foundation fellows an overview of the often-symbiotic relationship between the media and public health officials.

“The worldview people have is articulated through the media – at the national, state and local level,” he said. “We have to figure out how to get stories into the hands of people in different communities to stimulate some kind of action.”

Ehlinger led fellows through examples of health emergencies that have required him to work with reporters to make sure the public understood the gravity of the situation. In 2017, Ehlinger and his state grappled with an outbreak of measles that as of his visit with NPF fellows in July had affected 79 people, 71 of whom were confirmed to be unvaccinated. Of the victims, 64 were in Minnesota’s Somali community.

By comparison, in 2016, the state had two cases of the disease.

Because maintaining high vaccination rates is vital to preventing measles, making sure officials are reaching people through traditional or social media efforts is vital, he said.

Ehlinger also urged reporters to focus on the causes of public health problems – not just the illness itself. “Instead of just talking about substance abuse, describe the policies that led to the opioid use,” he said. “If you are writing about asthma in poor communities, what were the policies that allowed housing to deteriorate and contribute to the problem?”

Ehlinger’s career took him from clinical care in Montana, to the city of Minneapolis Health Department, the student health service at the University of Minnesota, and then the Minnesota Department of Health. He’s also been president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, a national group.