7 Questions With...

Thomas Gutwein, MD, Allen County Health Commissioner
May 8, 2023
Tim Brumbeloe
7 Questions With...

Appointed Allen County Health Commissioner in the summer of 2022, Dr. Thomas Gutwein is expanding on the great efforts already put forth by the health department to improve the overall health of the community. Board certified in emergency medicine, Dr. Gutwein has worked as an emergency medicine physician at Parkview Health since 1993. He is well positioned to help Allen County make strides in its endeavor to become a physically and mentally healthy community. We caught up with Dr. Gutwein to learn more about his role and goals as health commissioner.

Q1: You were appointed Allen County Health Commissioner in July, 2022. What can you tell us about what the job has been like so far? 
Being appointed Allen County Health Commissioner has been educational, interesting, challenging and fun. I have spent a significant amount of my time learning about where our local public health challenges are and the tremendous amount of work that has already been done to improve our public health. I have met with and learned from individuals and groups on health equity, mental health, opioid overdoses, children’s health needs and how we are fighting the social determinants of health as a community. I am very fortunate to be supported by all of the dedicated individuals we have in our health department and in our community that are working hard to solve these problems. 

Q2: After being appointed, you talked about making Allen County one of the healthiest counties, if not the healthiest county, in Indiana. How do we get there? 
What are some of the steps we can take to become a healthier county? Yes — why not? I think that we set our sights on becoming the healthiest county in America and then work to develop programs to help achieve that goal. Not all would be managed by the Health Department, (that would never be my goal) but programs that are intertwined using the wonderful partners our community already has, so that we are all working together to achieve a common goal. Organizations that already have roots in this community, that understand the gaps we need to fill, and organizations that are completely vested will help us achieve a healthier Allen County. Our region has already shown that we can partner together economically to provide a wonderful, vibrant place to live and grow. By using that same partnership model, we provide another equally important leg in building a great community – a physically and mentally healthy community – and an important step in achieving meaningful, long-lasting success. We should first identify opportunities to improve; secondly, we engage with experts on what needs to happen to improve; and third, we organically develop with our community the tools to make that happen. But first, we all need to share the vision and believe. This is for the benefit of not just our community today, but for the future, and it is critical to keep the continued positive economic momentum moving forward.

Q3: With vaccinations and treatments readily available, COVID-19 is no longer the threat it once was. What are some of the other public health challenges facing Allen County? 
Public health challenges will continue to keep us busy without COVID-19, as we have thousands of people traveling in and out of Fort Wayne every day. Food supplies now come overnight from across the continent. With people and food supplies can come diseases, and with those diseases come illnesses – illnesses that are constantly under the watchful eye of public health professionals. Monitoring for this is our job and important to our mission. Other steps we need to move forward with are health literacy and education. Making people aware of all the things that they should and can do to become healthier or keep themselves healthy is probably the best way to increase the average lifespan of everyone living in our community. Everything from tobacco cessation education to walking a few more steps each day to covering your cough are things everyone should have full awareness of and the benefits these changes can make.     

Q4: The Governor’s Public Health Commission recommended some changes to bolster public health in Indiana, including more funding. If the recommendations become law, how would they re-shape efforts to promote and protect public health in Allen County? 
This would give the Department of Health the tools it needs to do the job it can and needs to do to be prepared for the future and control or eliminate some health problems. We have been doing a tremendous job with the resources we have, but it has become much more difficult to do the next thing that should be done. By doing the next thing, we will look at how we as a community help those in need, those in crisis and those facing social and health inequities. It allows us to ask ourselves, “What should the Health Department be doing?” instead of where we currently struggle and ask ourselves, “Can we do what we have to do with what we have?” Comparatively, we as a state spend less per person than 80% of other states. Additional funding will hopefully move us up to the 50% level. It’s just the middle, not the top, but still a giant step forward. Then we can better monitor for illness, communicate better with our local health services and be better prepared to respond to a potential community disaster. We can increase the awareness and availability of mental health care in our community and work to strengthen the relationship between our numerous partners that can provide wonderful assistance to those people in need. 

Q5: What do you like to do in your spare time? 
I’m pretty task oriented, and always seem to be on a mission to complete something for work, for myself or someone else every day, which makes spare time relatively difficult to pinpoint. I use my spare time to catch up with family and friends, travel to places I have never seen or places I can just unwind, work on small projects in and around my house, and read a non-medical book. I am always looking to do something that will use my mind and body in another way that hopefully will make me a better person. 

Q6: How has your career in emergency medicine shaped your approach to public health?
Being an emergency physician has given me the opportunity to see an incredibly diverse population of our community, usually at a low point or very difficult time in their life. I have treated an innumerable group of diseases or problems from all ages – from one day old to over 100 years – along with almost every cultural group in our area. Diversity and seeing social inequities first-hand are important in understanding the health needs in our community, since 80% of our health is determined by the social determinants of health. Emergency medicine gives me a much better understanding of why people do some things that they do and what helps them make their health choices. I hope that experience will help me better understand our community health problems and give me better understanding of how we might be able to help each other and work together. It also helped me understand why 80% of our health is determined outside of health care. The decisions we make each day for ourselves, from when we get up in the morning, what we eat that day, what work or activity we will (or won’t) do, who we interact with, all the way until (and when) we go to bed, all dictates how healthy we are. Getting or staying healthy really is a 24-hour-a-day job!

Q7: Most of your career has been spent right here in northeast Indiana. What is it about our area that’s made living and working here so rewarding?
This has been a great community to raise our family of five wonderful children and see them grow into young adults. I think the opportunities that have been given to me and my family are innumerable, and I thank my family and this community for that. I have found that our community offers plenty of opportunity to get involved, has lots of people that really care about others, and that we are not too large or too small to go out and make a difference. This community has grown so much in the 30 years since I moved to Fort Wayne – not by accident, but by committed, passionate individuals that have the ability to engage others to make a positive change. Learning from those people has given me motivation to continue to grow and, hopefully, make a meaningful difference for others.

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