By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dr. Anthony Chen has devoted his career to taking care of others. Over the years, he has worked with diverse populations, immersed himself in communities, and built long-lasting relationships.
Since 2008, he’s served as the director of health of Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. Before his current position, he helped to open the largest clinic in Malden, Massachusetts, opened International Community Health Services (ICHS)’s Holly Park clinic, and served healthcare needs and more to the community of Pierce County.
Chen never really wanted to be a doctor because he loved bugs, animals, and being outdoors. However, he inevitably followed in his father’s footsteps.
Born in Vietnam to Taiwanese parents, Chen moved around Malaysia as a child. Chen’s father worked for the World Health Organization. Chen’s cultural background and worldly perspective have greatly impacted him.
“Being Chinese, there are so many cultures and traditions, but there are also a lot of values. We value our heritage, we respect our elders, we value education, we value honesty, hard work, all these things that are so important to us,” he explained.
Serving diverse communities
He decided to pursue family medicine because it allowed him to have a lot of influence to take care of the family, and not just the patient. He was also fascinated by people and cultures so he also studied anthropology.
Chen earned his Bachelor of Science degrees in biology and cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1982. In addition, he earned his medical degree from Duke University in 1986, and completed his residency training in Family Practice at the University of Cincinnati in 1989, where he was chief resident. He completed the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship, and received his Master of Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health in 2006.
“Somewhere between respect and being an anthropologist, and having lived overseas, it was just fun. You learn so much about different cultures and communities. In the work I do, I am always respectful of the people, organizations, and institutions that I work with,” he added.
Chen was hired by the ICHS to open their Holly Park clinic in 1996. He worked there for almost a decade and still keeps in touch with his patients. During his time working at the downtown Seattle clinic, Chen also took care of patients that were refugees from Ethiopia, Bosnia, and Russia.
“I always feel privileged as a physician to be able to take care of people. As a doctor, you’re given an opportunity to be part of someone’s life that normally no one else gets. You hear about the joys in their life and you watch them grow up, and you go through life with them,” he said.
Leading the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department
The department serves roughly 905,000 people in Pierce County. There are around 450 employees and an operating budget of approximately $40 million, but that figure changes all the time, according to Chen.
Under Chen’s predecessor, the department achieved a lot of firsts. Pierce County was the first to have a smoking ban in restaurants and it was also the first to have a needle exchange during the HIV crisis. In addition, the department also helped to bring the food handlers permit process online in all 39 counties almost a decade ago.
Last summer during the wildfires and under Chen’s watch, the department worked with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to create a clean air shelter during COVID-19, and they were one of two health departments working with communities to develop clean air shelters that were COVID-19 compliant.
“I’m like a proud mother here because we’ve done an incredible job and are high performing and innovative as a health department. We’re always looking for ways to do better,” he said.
Chen was surprised that someone would want to dissolve the agency. This is the third time that it’s come up, but the two previous times weren’t as sudden as this last time in December.
Despite this coming up again, Chen said they’re glad that Gov. Jay Inslee recognized that it didn’t make sense to dissolve the agency in the middle of a pandemic, and announced a moratorium on similar actions. Second, the Pierce County councilmembers’ votes were tied 3-to-3, and it needed four affirmative votes to pass.
Part of Chen’s job is to make sure they’re responding to COVID-19 and to make sure they’re doing the same job pre-COVID-19. Their number one priority is to address the pandemic and help move vaccines along to help move into recovery.
To address immediate issues, the department now has funding to deliver services remotely. Chen said that they’ve also bought licenses for a program called Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), which is a parenting and family support system designed to prevent—as well as treat—behavioral and emotional problems in children and teenagers.
Another top priority is to make sure the other good work before the pandemic is continuing. On the regulatory side, they want to continue to move on permits, inspections, and so on.
Chen said that there’s a broad range of areas that the agency covers, including protecting physical environments, clean air, clean water, garbage, landfill, and a lot of efforts focused on maternal and child health as well.
Behavioral health is also a priority in 2021, with a strong focus on youth mental health. In a study released a year or so ago, two out of three high school students were stressed and/or anxious, four of out 10 were depressed, one out of four thought about killing themselves, and one out of eight actually tried. The statistics are worse now due to the pandemic so it will be important to improve in this area.
Chen also said that they’re looking at structural improvements to make down the road.
Funding is an ongoing challenge. There’s a need to rebuild local, state, and national public health and make sure funding is there to support that, Chen added.
“We’ll also be thinking about what might be different ways to organize our health department, and make sure public health is properly funded. The budget’s cut repeatedly and always underfunded. We were fortunate in that we were smart to build up capacity and how we managed funds,” he said.
Inspired by icons and sense of adventure
Over the years, Chen has been influenced by a lot of important people in his life, including his parents, teachers, and colleagues. He looked up to the late Dr. George Tanbara who was a community icon in Tacoma who helped start the community health clinic.
Chen said he didn’t plan on going to medical school, but he made the best of the opportunities in front of him. There was a sense of adventure and he really embraced medical school by making the best of his experiences.
“As a child, my parents were my inspirations. I ended up doing a lot of the things my father did. I’ve learned so much from people who opened their hearts to help me grow personally and professionally,” he said.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chen will be honored at a virtual event on Feb. 9 from 4-5 p.m., http://bit.ly/3qwXfqy