Q&A: Karyl Rattay, Delaware’s Director of Public Health
For Karyl Rattay there is no such thing as a typical work day.
As the Director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, Rattay is responsible for health inspections of restaurants like Deer Park Tavern, responses to infectious disease outbreaks and the regulation of mattresses and pillows. In a position where anything can happen, Rattay said she’s always on her toes.
Rattay received her medical doctorate degree and after practicing pediatrics for a few years decided to switch paths and get more involved with public health and preventive medicine. Today, she oversees 700 employees and works with politicians and a wide variety of private companies on a range of health issues that affect the entire state.
Raaj Singh: Is there anything about your personality that you think makes you successful at your job?
Karyl Rattay: I think I have a personality and strengths that allow me to merge together the science, politics and interactions with people in a way that helps bring it all together. I just get excited about so many things in a positive way, like our mission of improving and protecting the health of Delawareans. It’s a mission that drives me, but sometimes…sometimes you gotta get other people excited.
RS: What does a typical work day look like for you?
KR: There is no such thing. Usually it involves meetings with staff within our agency but also many with partners such as other state agencies, health systems, transportation planning units, it can be a wide variety.
RS: I read that you majored in zoology in your undergraduate studies, is there a story behind that choice?
KR: Well, I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician and I was interested in biology but where I went to school there wasn’t a biology major so you could either pick zoology or botany. I was pre-med but I really loved the animal stuff.
RS: What led you to switch from pediatrics to public health?
KR: There was a time when I was in practice and I was observing all these children and youth who were overweight and obese. I’m passionate about physical activity and nutrition so while I was diagnosing them with type 2 diabetes, which is known as adult onset diabetes, I was thinking “I need to learn how to get a better handle on this.”
RS: Is there any one particular issue you’ve been working on recently?
KR: Right now I feel like I’m spending about 75 percent of my time focusing on the opiate crisis. It really has taken over everything. All of our programs are overwhelmed.
RS: Would you say that’s the biggest issue facing the state right now?
KR: Yeah, I would. It wasn’t on my radar when I started this job eight years ago but probably a year and a half into being in this role I saw our overdose deaths and it was the clearest picture of an epidemic that you could see. It showed how dramatically it’s increased. At that time, it was at about 100 deaths per year and for 2016 there were just over 300 deaths.
RS: What do you think have been the biggest obstacles in trying to bring down the number of opiate overdose deaths?
KR: 80 percent of all opiates are prescribed in the United States, and Delaware is the highest prescriber of high-dose opiates. Changing those practices has not been easy. There’s such a demand out there now that new pill mills set up as soon as you get one shut down. And then treatment access has also been very difficult to expand, we’d like to have substance use disorder treatment available to people as much as needed.
RS: Is there a point where you shift your focus away from one issue and move onto the next one?
KR: It’s very hard in this job to stay focused on any one issue because we cover so many affairs. We’re responsible for safe drinking water, for safe restaurants, for chronic and infectious diseases. This is the best job ever, it’s a lot of fun because you never know what to expect, there are just so many opportunities to learn every day.
RS: So after eight years in the position, you still get surprised by your work?
KR: Yeah I do, but less so now. There are always changes politically so those dynamics keep you on your toes. But I remember I was four years into the job when I learned that we regulate mattresses and pillows and I was like “what?”
Although Rattay oversees public health for the entire state, she is no stranger to the university’s campus. She is an affiliated professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and has spoken at a chapter meeting of Phi Delta Epsilon, the university’s pre-medical fraternity. Newly-elected Gov. John Carney has asked Rattay to remain in her position, so Delaware is in for at least four more years with this public health director who “loves her job.”
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.