HHS Secretary Burwell Addresses GW Students

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, spoke about leadership and her vision for the department recently at an event hosted by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Dean Lynn Goldman introduced the incoming secretary as “a tremendous leader” before ceding the stage to Burwell, who set aside time to answer questions from students following her address. First, though, she highlighted three goals she plans to pursue in her new role: to deliver results, to strengthen relationships and to build strong teams.

Burwell credited her small-town upbringing in Hinton, West Virginia, as the inspiration for many of the leadership values she still prizes today. She learned about hard work and customer service at her grandfather’s diner, Denny’s (“not that Denny’s … there was no Grand Slam”), and the importance of delivering tangible results at one of her first jobs, scooping ice cream.

Strong relationships with colleagues and the public alike hinge on trust, she said — and transparency will play a big role in establishing that trust. “Even if the numbers aren’t quite where we want them to be, we’re going to tell you about it,” she continued. “It may not make for the best and most attractive press release, but we believe that you build trust by sharing the news, both good and bad.” She also emphasized the importance of bipartisan cooperation, citing the department’s continuing efforts to work with state governments on Medicaid expansion.

“There’s nothing ideological about curing cancer. There isn’t a Democratic or Republican way to solve Ebola. There isn’t a liberal or conservative approach to preventing suicide.” – Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services

Student questions touched on a variety of topics, from work-life balance and Burwell’s background to congressional communication and disease prevention. A health administration student from the Milken Institute School asked, “From a public health perspective, prevention of disease is much less expensive than treating an illness or disease. What barriers prevent us from using more resources to tackle the social determinants of health that are the key means of preventing diseases, and how do we overcome these barriers?”

Burwell noted the importance of prevention, but also the inherent difficulties of cultivating a culture that supports it. Using healthy eating as an example, she cited three main variables that can determine the success of a prevention initiative: first, the knowledge of how to prevent a given condition (what is healthy eating?); second, the availability and affordability of tools that enable prevention (how much does it cost to access healthy food?); and third, whether or not individuals are working together as communities to facilitate larger cultural and behavioral shifts.

For future health administrators and public health professionals, Burwell will certainly be someone to watch as the discussion surrounding topics like the Affordable Care Act and health care cost transparency continue to evolve. Watch her address in its entirety.