Health department head tackles public health challenges with innovative approaches

Becky Barnes
Becky Barnes

Champions of Health Care

America's complex and technologically driven medical system is as sophisticated, complex and expensive as any in the world. But within that vast system are those who still put the "care" in health care and who we recognize as the winners of this year's Champions of Health Care awards.Edge magazine, in partnership with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, received more than 150 nominations from the public about health care providers, administrators and volunteers who have made health care better in Chattanooga. From among those nominations, a panel of judges comprised of top leaders from the medical society and each of Chattanooga's three major hospital systems - Erlanger Health System, CHI Memorial Hospital, Parkridge Health System -picked the winners that we salute in the following pages.The Champions of Health Care award winners recognize those who have tackled major community health problems, starting programs to tackle obesity and smoking, adding physical therapy training in Chattanooga, and bringing needed medical services to those without health insurance. Others are recognized for new approaches, strong leadership and simple acts of kindness during their lifetimes of achievement and service.In our second year of the awards, we have quickly discovered the rich talent and commitment from those who work every day to keep us healthy.

From cutting infant mortality and youth obesity to fighting the area's culture of smoking and aiding in emergency preparedness, Becky Barnes uses her job to make a difference.

"It's very rewarding to do one-on-one work," says Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and a former nurse. "But [even more rewarding] is being able to move to a different level and affect the lives of a large group of people, the population of our community."

Barnes joined the Hamilton County Department of Health in 1980, and has served as its administrator for the past 17 years. Over the years, she has seen vast changes in the field of public health and Barnes views that as one of the fascinating aspects of her post.

"In this department, we are flexible," says Barnes, 62, who oversees about 300 people and a $22 million annual budget. "It's one of our strengths in trying to assess the community, fill gaps and make changes. There's no staleness or boredom because public health changes so."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who nominated Barnes for a Champions of Health Care award, says she has steadfastly pursued the department's mission to assure a healthy community.

"Becky serves as the perfect public health role model in both her professional and personal life," he wrote in a nomination letter. "She is a visionary and her commitment and aggressive leadership are paramount. She is a champion and advocate for public health."

She started her career in nursing, graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1977.

Innovation in Health Care award

Innovation in Health Care award honors a company or individual primarily responsible for a scientific discovery or new process, device or service that can save lives of improve the quality of lives.Winner: Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health DepartmentAccomplishments: As head of the Hamilton County Health Department, she has led efforts to cut infant mortality, youth smoking and obesity through the Step One initiative.

photo Becky Barnes, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department administrator has been named a champion of health care. Ms. Barnes was photographed at the health department on July 14, 2017

"It seemed like a really good fit, and it was," says the Mississippi native, adding that she worked in nursing for a period at UT Hospital in Knoxville and at Erlanger.

However, Barnes says, a friend of her's recruited her to the public health side of the medical profession.

"It wasn't my favorite thing to do in school, but I came [to the health department] and it was just the thing," she says.

Barnes says she began as a shift nurse in the home visiting department doing skilled nursing care.

"I absolutely loved it," she says. "It was seeing someone in their home and being able to teach them and make changes. It is I think probably one of the most effective ways to make changes."

After working in that area for a number of years, she became a supervisor and then director of all community services. Later she was named what is now director of clinical services. That involves all the public services which are done in the building, such as family planning, immunizations and other traditional offerings in the field, she says.

In 2000, Barnes was chosen as the department's administrator.

Among some of the areas in which the department has seen changes and reacted include public health threats, she says. Public health entities have become a major player in that field of emergency services with "a huge responsibility" to keep the community safe, the administrator says.

Additionally, the department has overseen a significant drop in infant mortality in the county. It leveraged community partners such as hospitals and private business and analyzed the data on the issue, Barnes says.

"It touches a lot of different areas," she says. "There's no one thing. We looked at how healthy the mother is before she gets pregnant, prenatal care, prenatal vitamins. It's very multi-faceted."

Also, the department played a big role in Step One, the county's program to address obesity and related diseases. That involves looking at root causes, which are often poor nutrition and lack of exercise, Barnes says.

"It was more a program to collaborate and work with the community and increase awareness and focus on the issues," she says. The department teaches about and helps people set up community gardens, which aids in children learning how food is grown, Barnes says.

"Once you eat a fresh tomato, you never go back," she says.

In addition, the department is involved in helping set the pace of a smoke-free infrastructure in the county, particularly as it relates to second- and third-hand smoke, Barnes says. She says that Coppinger recruited mayors of municipalities here to ask people not to smoke in public parks and other places.

"Young people see other people smoking and that perpetuates the culture of smoking," Barnes says.

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