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local healthDid you know that Massachusetts has more local public health jurisdictions than any other state? Most other states have county or district-based health departments, but here most of our 351 cities and towns operate their own boards of health. To get a better sense of what makes Massachusetts local health so unique, we spoke with Ron O’Connor, Director of the Office of Local and Regional Health here at DPH.

What exactly do local boards of health do?

The primary mission of local health boards is to prevent hazards and illness from spreading in their community by enforcing local, state and federal health codes. This can mean a whole host of things from ensuring safe food handling at restaurants to infectious disease surveillance. They also enforce tobacco regulations, inspect local beaches, camps, and pools, and investigate consumer complaints regarding things like unsafe housing conditions, trash disposal, illegal dumping, and landfill use.

In addition, since 9/11, they have coordinated emergency planning with police, fire, and medical personnel. They have to be ready to provide treatment, mass vaccinations, and prompt information to residents in cases of extreme weather events or chemical, biological or radioactive incidents.

And nowadays, their list of duties has ballooned to also include things like preventing insect and tick-borne diseases, reducing substance addiction and the prevalence of chronic diseases, and promoting health campaigns on topics such as reducing obesity and improving mental health. In short, a little bit of everything!

Who are our local public health employees?

The local public health workforce includes health directors, health inspectors, public health nurses, and elected or appointed members of the boards of health. They work as a team to provide public health services and protections for all of our residents. Together they work tirelessly every day to ensure the safety and wellbeing of everyone who lives, works, learns, and plays in Massachusetts.

Does DPH work closely with local boards of health?

Absolutely! DPH has an important, longstanding partnership with local boards of health. We focus on the conditions in which people grow, live, and work, otherwise known as the social determinants of health. We also work together on a wide range of issues including emergency preparedness, food protection, housing, infectious disease surveillance and case management, tobacco control, substance addiction, lead poisoning prevention, and on and on.

I once heard someone say “If you’ve met one board of health, you’ve met one board of health, “likely because each is so different. Does that ring true to you?

Yes – to some extent. Massachusetts has a decentralized system for the delivery of public health services. That means that the local boards of health operate independently of our state department.  The Massachusetts tradition of municipal independence means that each city and town has developed its own unique character. Although some cities and towns share public health services, they retain local control over public health matters. The over 1,000 individuals that serve as members of the boards of health come from all walks of life but they share one thing in common – a commitment to the health and wellbeing of all residents and visitors.

Since DPH is celebrating its 150 anniversary this year, it’s worth noting that local public health actually has its roots here in Massachusetts – Boston was the first local public health department in the nation; Paul Revere was its first health officer in 1799. Because of that history and tradition, I have heard it said that “If it was good enough for Paul Revere, it is good enough for us!”

Is there anything else we should know about local public health in Massachusetts?

People often describe public health as an “invisible” part of local government – in contrast to things like public safety, public works, and education. When local public health is working effectively, it is relatively “unseen” in the community but its impact is felt broadly – in safe places to eat, healthy homes, communities prepared for emergencies, and more. It’s satisfying to come to work every day and know that we’re working in partnership with cities and towns to deliver a really important service for people across the Commonwealth.

To learn more about local and regional public health efforts, visit the DPH Office of Local and Regional Health website.

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Communications Director at the Department of Public Health

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