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January 31, 2013

Indiana’s new health commissioner faces flu epidemic in first days on the job



VanNess strongly supports legislation, authored by Republican state Sen. Pat Miller of Indianapolis, that would make vaccination reporting mandatory. It would give state public health officials the information they need when they’re tracking disease outbreaks. But it would also give more people quicker access to their immunization records and those of their children. 

“We trying to get into the 21st century as a state organization,” said VanNess, noting the millions of birth and death records dating back to 1900 that are still on paper and stored at the state health department. 

Digitizing mountains of health records is just one task that VanNess faces as he takes over the Indiana State Department of Health. As health commissioner, it’s his job to make sure essential public health services are being provided in every county. But it’s also his job to promote better public health.

That may be the toughest challenge. 

“The state of Indiana is not very healthy,” VanNess said. “Thirty percent [of Indiana residents] are obese; 25.6 percent smoke; 10.2 percent are diabetic; 29 percent have a total sedentary lifestyle. We’ve got to see what we can do to motivate people to have healthier lifestyles.” 

VanNess said the process of figuring that out involves some of what he learned from his late father, a small-town doctor who made house calls, delivered babies, performed surgeries, provided emergency care — and anything else a small town doctor was called to do.  

“I saw the dedication he had and how he always put patients first,” VanNess said. “And that’s my goal here.”

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