March 04, 2019
Name:Kenneth Bird, M.D.
Kenneth Bird, M.D., recently retired Public Health Officer for the Fresno County Department of Public Health, was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fresno Madera Medical Society (FMMS).
Colleagues of Dr. Bird praised his passion for serving the indigent and looking for ways to involve and connect other organizations to the mission of public health.
”He was really thinking about the whole health of a community and all the things that impact that,” said Rose Mary Rahn, the public health nursing director and Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health director. “It was not just about this disease or this one issue, but it could be related to poverty or education or homelessness. He looked at all the social determinants of health. And the whole County of Fresno was his patient.”
And he took the health of his 6,011-square-mile patient personally, said David Luchini, assistant director of county public health. “He saw the high infant mortality rates, the high preterm birth rates, the high STD rates we’re dealing with in Fresno County,” he said. “It affected him when our syphilis rates would go way up. I just bothered him to know that something that so affected babies and was preventable was increasing.”
Over the 15 years he worked with Dr. Bird, Luchini saw an evolution: “We grew from a focus on infectious diseases to overall wellness and the social determinants of health and how to delay or prevent those chronic disease. He built a lot of bridges with a lot of partners we didn’t have before.”
Dr. Bird became the epitome of a public health doctor, but he didn’t start out that way. Although he wanted to be a doctor as long as he can remember, he started in pediatrics and took a detour into the navy as a flight surgeon before joining the Fresno County Department of Public Health in 1986.
His first job was serving medically indigent patients as a primary care physician in Coalinga and he worked as the tuberculosis controller, the communicable disease controller and the health director for the Fresno County Jail before becoming the county public health officer during the last five years of his tenure there.
David Pomaville, director of the public health department, noted, “Dr. Bird has helped Fresno County address many emerging health issues, including childhood lead poisoning, mosquito-borne illnesses, measles, congenital syphilis and many others. He’s provided medical leadership in preparing Fresno County address pandemic flu, biologic terrorism and Ebola. But his best gift he provided is his writing which articulates the concerns of public health in our community.”
It takes a community to create a healthy community
Dismal healthcare ratings for Fresno County spurred Dr. Bird to pick up his pen and urge others to do something about it. That first op-ed outlined what he calls his greatest accomplishment: The Eight Pillars of Public Health.
“Within a few months of being appointed as interim health officer the health rankings came out (from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) and we were almost dead last in California,” Dr. Bird described. “I was fussing and fretting about what to say if media called. And then I only got one call from a radio station. That was it. I thought ‘Have we just given up here or what?!’ That led to my first op-ed.”
When he showed it to his boss, Pomaville urged him to put in a stronger call to action. That’s advice he took and used to create 43 op-eds and several community health newsletters.
In his writing, Dr. Bird tackled things like needle exchanges for drug users, the opioid epidemic, teen sex, vaping, high syphilis rates, the cost of bad air quality, mental health inequities and the over proliferation of tobacco, junk food and alcohol advertising in poor neighborhoods. He explained how lack of dental care – something that 14% of children younger than 11 in Fresno County have never had – can affect nutrition, communication, socialization, sleeping and academic performance. He urged mothers to choose breast feeding for their babies and employers and communities to support that choice.
“I’d have tackled even more topics but Dave held me back since he’s more politically astute than I am,” Dr. Bird added.
That first op-ed may be his most enduring. Dr. Bird wrote about the eight public health pillars – individuals, families, employers, retailers, healthcare providers, educators, community/spiritual leaders and public/government officials – and how they must work in concert to support and encourage better health. His writings still stand on the Fresno County Public Health Department’s web site and the Pillars of Public Health has been incorporated into the department’s programs, said Pomaville.
Retired only a few months, Dr. Bird is now turning his attention to the foster care system, knowing that children who experience trauma are nearly twice as likely to have serious and chronic health problems as adults. He’s part of a committee to look at improvements for foster children and is continuing his work advocating for an underserved community.
This profile originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Central Valley Physician.
California's doctors aren't just health care and medical experts. They're also community leaders, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and policymakers dedicated to ensuring that patients receive quality health care at an affordable cost. #CMAdocs showcases California physicians leading the charge to help their communities thrive.
Share your story or celebrate a deserving colleague today!