Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

For Pinellas' new health director, the patient is 'the whole population' 01/14/16 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2016 11:56am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Commissioner Manfred to visit Trop on Wednesday for Rays-Blue Jays

    Blogs

    Commissioner Rob Manfred is slated to be at the Trop on Wednesday.

    And so is Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg,

    And they are scheduled to meet with the media.

    But before you get excited - or riled up - know it's not to make any big announcement on the stadium or the overall future …

  2. Bucs running back's gamble pays off for his mom

    Bucs

    TAMPA — When Peyton Barber decided to leave Auburn after his sophomore year, with only one season as a starting running back, it was a risky decision, one he hoped would let him help out his family back home in suburban Atlanta.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Peyton Barber (43) takes the field with an American flag before a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  3. Officials say Trump's Afghan plan involves 3,900 more troops

    National

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's plan to end the stalemate in America's longest war and eliminate Afghanistan's rising extremist threat involves sending up to 3,900 additional U.S. forces, senior officials said Tuesday. The first deployments could take place within days.

    President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. [Associated Press]
  4. 'Cavern' closes westbound lanes on E Fletcher Avenue in Hillsborough County

    Roads

    Westbound lanes of E Fletcher Avenue are closed near the Hillsborough River to repair what the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office terms a "cavern" that formed under the roadway.

  5. Joss Whedon's ex-wife accuses him of cheating, being 'hypocrite preaching feminist ideals'

    Celebrities

    Joss Whedon made his name directing cult television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and big-budget action movies, which often featured women in empowering roles. Many applauded him for being a champion of women, a feminist in an industry accused of misogyny and sexism.

    Joss Whedon at the screening of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2014. Whedon's ex-wife Kai Cole alleged in an essay published by The Wrap on Sunday that Whedon had multiple affairs during their 16-year marriage. (Associated Press)