The Perspective

A New Perspective on Public Health

In 1962, no one could imagine 2 million people living in the Las Vegas valley, a disease like AIDS could even exist, illnesses like tuberculosis would not yet be eradicated or that today’s younger generation would be at risk for having shorter and less healthy lives than those of their parents for the first time in modern history.

Important issues to reflect upon as the Southern Nevada Health District celebrates 50 years of protecting and promoting the health of Clark County residents and visitors.

At the time of its inception the district employed approximately 30 employees, including four sanitarians that inspected some 800 eating and drinking establishments. Today the health district employs more than 500 people and inspects more than 17,000 permitted food establishments each year. While much has changed during the past 50 years what has remained constant is the health district’s commitment to the people it serves.

“While the goal of public health has always been to ensure a safe and healthy community, how we reach that goal has evolved over time as a result of advances in science and technology along with the ever-changing needs of our community,” said Dr. Lawrence Sands, chief health officer of the Southern Nevada Health District.

Training on Demand

Today’s environmental health specialist may not be teleporting to his or her next inspection, but in 1963 when the first food handlers program was established it consisted of a traveling “medicine show” that moved from hotel to hotel providing a two-hour program of films, lectures and demonstrations to educate food handlers on the importance of food safety. Flash forward to 2012 and the very same environmental health division is partnering with Vegas PBS to pilot an online training and testing program for food handlers that allows clients to complete the course at their convenience – maybe not the stuff of sci-fi movies, but a great advance forward and use of current technology for health district customers.

Rock, Roll and Tweet

In 1998 when the Office of Epidemiology was established to conduct disease surveillance and investigate disease outbreaks and reportable diseases, the internet was already widely available. Still, no one envisioned a world of instantaneous access to information and people readily tweeting, retweeting and posting status updates as a useful tool for an outbreak investigation. Yet, social media proved to be just that in the wake of the 2011 Rock ‘n Roll Las Vegas Marathon.

In December of 2011 the health district began receiving reports of gastrointestinal illness in marathon participants who fell ill during or after the race. As part of the outbreak investigation a survey was developed and posted to the health district’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as the marathon’s Facebook page. Links to the survey were retweeted and reposted by marathon participants in a number of running forums. These venues proved to be effective methods for soliciting responses to the survey and the health district will continue to explore further uses for social mediums in the future.

Skype Me!

Tuberculosis hasn’t been eradicated as we had hoped and has even morphed into strains that are ever more resistant to existing antibiotics. Fortunately, what have also evolved are the tools at our disposal for monitoring the treatment of patients. “Directly observed therapy” has long been a mainstay of TB treatment, as stopping and starting medications is what leads to the development of multi-drug resistant strains of the disease.

“DOT,” as it is called, involves a public health nurse directly observing a patient taking their medication. In the past this could involve a patient traveling to a clinic, or a nurse traveling to a patient to administer a dose – and keep in mind, regimens for treating TB typically total six to nine months. Today the majority of the patients in the health district’s TB clinic are observed taking their medication through Skype – saving both valuable time for the patients and the nurses while ensuring medication is taken appropriately. This internet-based technology could not have even been imagined when the health district first opened its doors half a century ago.

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Smoking Ads

An Unfiltered Approach

In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General first reported the link between smoking and lung cancer, do you think anyone fathomed the innovative and evidence-based programs currently being implemented in order to ensure young people quit, or never started smoking?

Instead of the traditional lectures and posters, today’s programs implement best practices that employ counter-marketing techniques to create experiences such as smoke-free night club events where the tobacco-free lifestyle message is displayed in a fun and hip way that resonates with attendees. They also advertise in alternative rock and punk scene magazines and distribute branded items that are focus group tested and include backpacks, skateboards and guitar picks.

You will also find messages being distributed by brand ambassadors at youth events such as concerts and other youth-centric activities and through MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, text messaging and e-mail blasts. Definitely NOT your parents’ health education program.

Moving Forward

As the health district embarks on another successful 50 years of providing public health services and facing challenges that include turning the tide of our younger generation's declining health status and addressing new and emerging diseases, we look forward to discovering new and innovative tools and techniques to overcome these challenges.


To commemorate the Southern Nevada Health District’s 50th anniversary, we have planned several activities throughout the year to highlight our public health successes, challenges and evolution over five decades. Look for employee interviews, special segments of HD-tv (Health District television), in-depth features in future editions of the “Retro” Perspective, as well as an interactive timeline illustrating our history.

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