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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]
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