Sunday, April 22, 2018
Health

For Pinellas' new health director, the patient is 'the whole population'

LARGO — When Ulyee Choe was a kid, fate brought his family from Kuwait City to Clearwater Beach.

His father, a South Korean entrepreneur, was mulling new business opportunities and decided to buy the Glass House Motel.

"I remember on the weekends as a teenager, I would work the desk and do the maintenance," Choe recalled. "It wasn't as glamorous as you would picture."

So, when Choe, 36, was selected to lead the state Department of Health's office in Pinellas County in August, it was more than just a promotion. It was a homecoming.

"If you have that kind of tie to the area, to the community, it makes a world of difference," he said on a recent afternoon. "Especially in the world of public health, where are you are trying to improve the health of that community."

Choe took the reins last month when his predecessor, Dr. Claude Dharamraj, officially retired. He is now leading the department in its efforts to make behavioral health a priority, improve overall access to care, and help Pinellas residents achieve a healthy weight, he said.

Choe's interest in medicine dates back to his days at Dunedin High. He was fascinated by the body systems. A lesson in which he dissected a cat left a particular impression.

"He was a great science student," his anatomy teacher Jeffrey Sellers said. "But he wasn't only gifted in academics. He was an outstanding artist and musician, too."

Choe left his hometown to study microbiology at the University of Florida. He went on to earn his doctoral degree in osteopathic medicine at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and specialized in infectious diseases and international medicine.

But instead of becoming a practicing physician, Choe went into public health. His rationale was simple.

"As a physician, you treat one patient at a time," he said. "In public health, you have the opportunity to treat the whole population."

His career quickly took off.

In 2012, Choe was named interim director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County — a position that became permanent in 2013. He assumed the interim director position in Hardee County, too, starting in early 2015.

Choe jumped at the chance to return to his home county. "My heart is here," he said.

As director, Choe will follow the Pinellas County Community Health Improvement Plan, a four-year road map drawn up by community stakeholders in 2013.

The plan stresses the importance of behavioral health.

"I don't think a lot of people realize that mental health and physical health go hand in hand," Choe said. "As a physician, I can prescribe a blood pressure pill to a patient, but if their depression is acting up and they aren't taking their medication, it's really not doing any good."

Choe pointed out that Pinellas is one of three counties involved in a pilot program to review all local, state and federally funded behavioral health services — and to come up with a way to better coordinate care among providers and public health partners.

He also plans to spearhead efforts to ensure all Pinellas residents have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as places to exercise and primary care services.

"Most Americans, unfortunately, die of chronic diseases — and most of that can be prevented on the front end," Choe said, adding that more preventative care also would ease the burden on Pinellas emergency rooms.

His predecessor expects him to start strong.

"The number one advantage he has is that he grew up in Pinellas County," Dharamraj said. "He went to school in Pinellas County. He did some of his training at the hospitals in Pinellas County. His mother lives here. His brother is a doctor here."

He's also "exceptionally qualified," she said.

"He has training in sexually transmitted diseases. That is a great asset for the health department."

Choe's interests outside of public health are varied. He enjoys watching films by Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan. He keeps a guitar in the living room and plays it when he can.

But most of his free time is spent with family. He and his wife, Dr. Nadia Sauer Choe, have three young children.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

Comments
Do not eat any romaine lettuce, the CDC warns

Do not eat any romaine lettuce, the CDC warns

Public health officials are now telling consumers to avoid all types of romaine lettuce because of an E. coli outbreak linked to the vegetable that has spread to at least 16 states and sickened at least 60 people, including eight inmates at an Alask...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida has hit a milestone of sorts as it slowly moves toward wider availability of medical marijuana.The number of patients in the state who are registered to use the substance has surpassed 100,000 for the first time, according to Florida Departme...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida Hospital Carrollwood spending $17.5 million to expand emergency department

Florida Hospital Carrollwood spending $17.5 million to expand emergency department

Florida Hospital Carrollwood is expanding its emergency department. The hospital, 7171 North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, is spending $17.5 million to add 15 new private treatment rooms, new pediatric rooms and waiting areas, and new technology, acco...
Published: 04/18/18
Barbara Bush’s end-of-life decision stirs debate over ‘comfort care’

Barbara Bush’s end-of-life decision stirs debate over ‘comfort care’

As she nears death at age 92, former first lady Barbara Bush’s announcement that she is seeking "comfort care" is shining a light — and stirring debate — on what it means to stop trying to fight terminal illness.Bush, the wife of former President Geo...
Published: 04/17/18
Preparing for the worst, staffers at Johns Hopkins All Children’s learn through simulation

Preparing for the worst, staffers at Johns Hopkins All Children’s learn through simulation

When the patient got violent, Dr. Michelle Hidalgo didn’t have time to think. She had to react. The woman was moving strangely and seemed erratic. Hidalgo had to make a tough call — it was time to physically restrain her for everyone’s safety.Then th...
Published: 04/16/18
Updated: 04/17/18

Lung cancer patients live longer with immune therapy

The odds of survival can greatly improve for people with the most common type of lung cancer if, along with the usual chemotherapy, they are also given a drug that activates the immune system, a major new study has shown.The findings should change me...
Published: 04/16/18
Thousands of pounds of prepackaged salad mixes may have been tainted with E. coli, officials say

Thousands of pounds of prepackaged salad mixes may have been tainted with E. coli, officials say

A Pennsylvania food manufacturer is recalling 8, 757 pounds of ready-to-eat salad products following an E. coli outbreak that has spread to several states and sickened dozens of people.Fresh food Manufacturing Co., based in Freedom, Pennsylvania, is ...
Published: 04/15/18
St. Anthony’s Cancer Center installs bell dedicated to survivors

St. Anthony’s Cancer Center installs bell dedicated to survivors

ST. PETERSBURGSister Mary McNally, vice president of mission at St. Anthony’s Hospital, stood in front of a room of cancer survivors to unveil a silver bell surrounded by butterfly stickers mounted to the wall of the Cancer Center lobby. "So often pe...
Published: 04/13/18
Hand dryers could leave your hands dirtier than you think

Hand dryers could leave your hands dirtier than you think

Washing your hands after you use the bathroom is a good idea. But using a public dryer could undo all that hard work, according to a new study.A study, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, examined 36 men’s and women’s bat...
Published: 04/13/18
Meek and Mighty Triathlon draws the young (siblings who are 7, 9 and 11) and not so young

Meek and Mighty Triathlon draws the young (siblings who are 7, 9 and 11) and not so young

The annual St. Anthony’s Triathlon has for years attracted elite athletes from around the world, making the St. Petersburg race one of the premier triathlon events in the country. There’s a big incentive to run fast, swim hard and be the best on a bi...
Published: 04/13/18