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The New Public Health Director Talks about His Goals for Force Readiness

Image of Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in dress whites at the 2019 National Independence Day Parade where he represented the U.S. Surgeon General as a presiding official with the other services. Taylor was named in February as the new director of the Defense Health Agency’s Public Health directorate. (Photo: Tanisha Blaise, Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division senior public relations and media specialist) . Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps in dress whites at the 2019 National Independence Day Parade where he represented the U.S. Surgeon General as a presiding official with the other services. Taylor was named in February as the new director of the Defense Health Agency’s Public Health directorate. (Courtesy Photo)

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Rear Adm. Brandon Taylor was recently appointed to be the new director for the Defense Health Agency's Public Health directorate. In an interview, he discussed how he is approaching his new role, his goals for Public Health within the Defense Health Agency, and the importance of Public Health to a medically ready force and a ready medical force.

Taylor has been in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps for more than 24 years and most recently was chief of staff for the Indian Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services. He has a doctorate in pharmacy and is board certified in pharmacotherapy. He is an enrolled member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation.

MHS Communications: What is the current state of the DHA Public Health directorate?

Rear Adm. Brandon Taylor: It's an exciting time in DHA Public Health. Our divisions within the directorate have been fully engaged these past two years fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, the Immunization Healthcare Division and Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division have been the force behind the data that inform DHA leadership on trends and tracking as well as vaccine proliferation.

A team from the Total Force Fitness division recently met with state public health officials, community leaders, and federal partners to further the discussion on DOD collaboration with local communities across the country where our warfighters live. Their aim was to address the social determinants of health, improve resiliency, address mental health concerns, and improve overall health of our service members and their families.

Of course there is much discussion and lively activities related to the Public Health transition from the services to DHA. We value our relationships with each service and recognize the challenges such a transition poses. As we focus on the intent of the law, the FY2019 NDAA Section 711(b)(2), Public Health for the DOD will be stronger, more agile, and better equipped to meet the needs of our service members and the DOD.

MHS Communications: On a day-to-day basis, how does the Public Health directorate interact and support a medically ready force and a ready medical force?

Rear Admiral Taylor: A very basic view of public health is health promotion and disease prevention. That's what we do in Public Health. We are constantly assessing, monitoring, and surveilling data and systems to identify, study, alert, lessen, and prevent disease and hazards for our service members to ensure that we are a medically ready force. The environment is never at rest and neither are we.

MHS Communications: What are your top priorities in line with Public Health's status today?

Rear Adm. Taylor: Certainly, the Public Health transition from the services to DHA is a top priority for us, but we cannot lose focus on ensuring that the infrastructure, processes, and systems are in place to receive a significant infusion of personnel, resources, and physical space. We are actively discussing and planning what Public Health should look like in a year, five years, and beyond.

MHS Communications: How do you envision the DHA's Public Health directorate helping with the Military Health System Transformation?

Rear Adm. Taylor: In many ways, much of Public Health in the DOD has already seen lessening duplication over the years and, as a result, we are primed for transformation. As an example, IHD has been functioning as a joint service for several years already. Over the years, the services have lessened duplication naturally, so I believe that this will greatly assist with a smooth transition into DHA Public Health.

With this head start, I feel that the greatest way that DHA Public Health will contribute to the transformation of the MHS is by leading the way in optimizing services and minimizing disruptions to capacity and function as we forge the future of public health together.

Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the director of DHA Public Health, testifies at a hearing. (Photo: Courtesy Photo)
Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the director of DHA Public Health, testifies at a hearing. (Courtesy Photo) 

MHS Communications: How does Public Health prevent diseases and their spread and what is the next thing to look for?

Rear Adm. Taylor: It is the collective goal of the public health enterprise to detect and assess disease threats to our services before their exposures and to prevent diseases from negatively affecting their health and the mission. DHA intends to continue enhancing integrated biosurveillance and coordinating with our DOD mission partners to provide early detection and warning of potential threats in the operational environment as well as at our garrison locations.

For example, DHA Public Health will continue conducting surveillance and performing whole genome sequencing of respiratory viruses causing influenza-like illness on samples collected globally to identify emerging/re-emerging viruses or public health events of concern that could impact military operations and threaten our forces. These include SARS-CoV-2 variants and seasonal influenza.

The Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics, known as ESSENCE, is a critical tool to help the public health enterprise identify emerging, new or novel diseases that threaten to enter the MHS facilities around the world. The DOD coordinates closely to share ESSENCE information that captures disease threats as early as possible in their evolution.

The next step in the evolution of biosurveillance is to explore forecasting and predictive analytic platforms providing even earlier detection capabilities to public health leaders. Additionally, public health leaders are exploring comprehensive notification capabilities that could assist in preventing the spread to our military family.

MHS Communications: How does Public Health factor into Total Force Fitness?

Rear Adm. Taylor: We play a significant role in Total Force Fitness as the public health principles of "health promotion" and "disease prevention" have great implications for TFF. For example, public health teams recently reported the results of monitoring for heat-related injuries at the Army installation in Aberdeen, Maryland. Everything we do in DHA Public Health is to benefit and improve the total fitness of the force to ensure they are protected, ready, and fit to fight.

MHS Communications: It is interesting that you deployed on numerous missions. Could you briefly discuss why that was important to you?

Rear Adm. Taylor: Most U.S. Public Health Service officers cite the opportunity to deploy as one of the primary reasons they commission. This was the case for me as well. I suspect each of us feel compelled to be of service to people of need, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it be in the provision of direct patient care, engineering and environmental health services, case management, patient movement, or leadership.

For me, each deployment was an opportunity to answer the call to serve, help, contribute, lift, and lead. Each deployment experience stretched me physically, emotionally, socially, and even spiritually. As a result, each deployment helped me grow as an officer and person. Will Rogers said: "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." Meaningful and intentional growth are important to me. I seek for it even today and have sought for it most of my career.

MHS Communications: Where did your interest in pharmacy come from?

William "Bill" Medlin was a family friend, and as a youth, we attended the same church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I really looked up to him as a grandfather figure, a man of faith, and a professional with keen knowledge and wisdom. When I learned of his profession, I shadowed him in his community pharmacy for a month as part of a high school program. I saw how he interacted with his patients and the community, and he embodied leadership, care, and compassion to me. Seeing how the community looked to him for his sincerity, concern, and knowledge as their pharmacist, I wanted to be like him and serve like him.

MHS Communications: Does it relate to your serving underserved populations who may have more mental health and other health issues?

Rear Adm. Taylor: It mostly relates to my mother's love for others through health care and my father's passion for uniformed service and love of country.

My mother served as a physical therapy assistant and provided direct patient care in home health for many years. Her one-on-one care taught me the importance of caring for the one. My father's service as a master sergeant in the United States Army Special Forces taught me service before self and how to love and serve my country.

While in pharmacy school at Campbell University in North Carolina, I learned more about my family's American Indian roots and family history through my father and uncle. As I learned more about my heritage and ties to the Cherokee Nation and Seneca Cayuga Nation, both in Oklahoma, I was fascinated and drawn to serve my extended family there as a uniformed officer and pharmacist.

I remember being overwhelmed with a sense of belonging after I interviewed for my first position within the Cherokee Nation jurisdiction. I knew I was meant to serve American Indians and Alaska Natives at that time. What ensued was a culturally rich, beautiful, professionally fulfilling, and personally influential experience that would impact my entire family and career path.

Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor, the director of Public Health for DHA, speaks at a recent meeting. Taylor has been with the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps for more than 24 years. (Photo: Courtesy Photo)
Rear Admiral Brandon Taylor, the director of Public Health for DHA, speaks at a recent meeting. Taylor has been with the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps for more than 24 years. (Courtesy Photo)

MHS Communications: Did you practice this specialty while at IHS?

Rear Adm. Taylor: As a new graduate, I completed a clinical pharmacy practice residency. That is an intense training program to quickly provide brand new pharmacists several years of experience in a short period of time, not unlike medical residency training programs. After residency, I practiced clinical pharmacy for many years where I developed pharmacy-based specialty clinics to ease physician workload, sought certification in parenteral nutrition, national certification in anticoagulation therapy, and eventually national board certification in pharmacotherapy.

Much of my clinical practice centered on public health. A colleague and I established a metabolic syndrome clinic where we focused on lifestyle modifications, education, and early intervention to lessen the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I loved my clinical practice and how it exposed me to additional opportunities in pharmacy and hospital administration and, later, Indian Health Service senior leadership, which broadened my exposure to other public health experiences.

MHS Communications: How do you envision your leadership affecting the Public Health directorate in the next two to five years?

Rear Adm. Taylor: I am hopeful that my experience in public health, collaboration team-building skills, and leadership will create the right environment for our team to unite in establishing what DHA Public Health will look like for many years to come. I envision standardization, enterprise accreditation, and professional development through national public health board certification. My experience working in the Indian Health Service will assist DOD Public Health in enabling cooperative security against mutual disease threats among our global military partnerships.

MHS Communications: Why did you join the Commissioned Corps/Public Health Service?

Rear Adm. Taylor: I grew up a proud "Army brat" but never really envisioned myself joining the military or wearing a uniform. However, in my first year of pharmacy school, I attended a career fair where an officer in Navy summer whites approached me. I remember telling her that I was not interested in joining the Navy, but she indicated that she was not a Navy officer. In disbelief, I learned about another uniformed service of which I had never heard, a brief history of it, and where and how USPHS Commissioned Corps officers serve.

I was intrigued and found myself applying for a summer experience that ultimately changed my life and projected career path. I decided to join for three essential reasons.

First, I saw the impact officers were having on those underserved and vulnerable populations. They were making a marked difference.

Second, I was drawn to the autonomy and clinical pharmacy practice model that aligned with what I was learning in school.

Lastly, the thought of deploying to a place or people in need to provide relief, assistance, and help really called to me.

I am grateful for that pull that the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps had on me. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career to date and consider myself very fortunate for the opportunities and experiences so far including the opportunity to serve in the DOD and specifically the DHA. I look forward to several more years of learning, growing, and service.

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