Meet Dr. Arnold?

Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health speaks in Galesburg


by Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg


The Knox County Health Department is celebrating its 15th birthday and held a luncheon Wednesday where the guest of honor was Illinois' new Director of Public Health, Dr. Damon Arnold. Dr. Arnold spoke briefly at the luncheon but was also kind enough to answer some questions prior to the event. While the success of our county health department and its remarkable growth are no secret Dr. Arnold is largely an unknown political entity having just assumed his post October 1st.

An Illinois native and Chicago resident, Dr. Arnold was the Chicago Department of Public Health's director for bioterriorism and preparedness prior to being tapped by Governor Rod Blagojevich for his new post. He is also a 23-year military man holding the rank of colonel in the Illinois National Guard where he serves as surgeon general and commander of the Joint Task Force Medical Command in Springfield. His military service has included tours of duty in the middle-east during the present war in Iraq and he is an accomplished martial artist but interestingly enough he is also a practitioner of holistic medicine including massage therapy and acupuncture.

“I want to fully address the many health needs of this state and am proud to serve under a Governor who has placed healthcare needs at the forefront of his political agenda,” noted Arnold immediately prior to the luncheon. “Equal access to healthcare and prevention are among the most important points I plan to focus upon. Illinois is already far ahead of many other states in terms of our ability to address the medical challenges we may face in a disaster regardless of its origin. But many parts of this state face smaller local challenges day-in and day-out in terms of providing healthcare to our citizens. Whether it is addressing the challenges of chronic or communicable disease or providing prevention services in our communities and schools or simply assuring that health professionals are available across the state I want to make sure that Illinois is as well prepared as resources permit.”

In a number of respects regarding health the Galesburg area is fortunate. Whereas many communities our size would love to have a single full-function hospital with 24 hour trauma care we have two. At a time when 92 out of 102 Illinois counties are statistically underserved at least partially by available primary care physicians Galesburg has a full array of both primary and specialty physicians and only remote portions of Knox County are considered underserved. A population where area healthcare remains insufficient is medical care for low income and the uninsured, but this is hardly a problem we face alone.

During its 15 year existence the Knox County Health Department has made extending available healthcare options to this underserved population a priority with some notable successes but much remains to be done. According to statistics released this summer by IDPH over a quarter of Illinois' population live in area's deemed as health professional shortage areas and this data led to the formation of the departments Center for Rural Health whose focus is “ improve access to primary health care in rural and underserved areas of Illinois and to encourage community involvement in health issues.” Expanding healthcare availability in rural areas is a daunting task that effects each and every county surrounding Knox excepting Peoria.

This issue involves more than just physicians and includes dentists, nurses and other healthcare fields. For example, according to Dr. Arnold, “Illinois faces a shortage of more than 21,000 nurses by the year 2020 because of an aging nursing workforce and increased demand for nurses as baby boomers get older.  To address this shortage the Governor signed legislation last year to increase the number of nursing faculty to train more nurses, make it cheaper for nursing student to go to school, increase the number of nursing school graduates and improve working conditions for nurses.”

“There are shortages of health professionals in Illinois,” explains Dr. Arnold. “In fact, if you log onto our department's website under rural health you will find areas across Illinois that are designated as health professional shortage areas (HPSA). ( The Illinois Department of Public Health offers numerous scholarships and educational loan repayment programs to encourage health professionals not only to practice in Illinois, but to also practice in underserved areas of the state.  On our web site under rural health you can find information about scholarship programs as well as an announcement of more than $760,000 to universities and hospitals that offer programs that encourage family practice residents to practice in underserved areas.”

Illinois began a Medical Student Scholarship program back in 1985. “We received 25 applications for new scholarships for the 2008 fiscal year and awarded to 15 of the new applicants in addition to funding 35 continuing recipients for a total of 50 scholarships amounting to $2,543,435.  The majority of students are on scholarship for less then 4 years. Illinois also participates in a federally funded Loan Repayment Program that provided educational loan repayment to 29 health practitioners that represent the following physician specialties:  family practice, internal medicine, obstetrician/gynecology, pediatrics and psychiatry.  Other specialists participating in the program are dentists, advanced practice nurses and physician assistants.  Participants must practice full-time for a minimum of two years in a federal health professional shortage area.  IDPH has a grant for $400,000 this year to fund the program.”

In 1995 IDPH began a scholarship program for Allied Health that received 4 new applications in 2007 and awarded 2 new scholarships while continuing to fund 4 other scholarships for a total amount of $52,500. “These scholarships are for a maximum of two years.  We have awarded between 6 and 15 scholarship every year since the program was initiated.  The number is dependent on available funding.” IDPH's Nursing Education Scholarship program was begun in 1993 and has been appropriated $1.2 million annually since 2005. “We received 735 applications and awarded 71 new scholarships as well as funding 82 continuing recipients in this program this year.  The scholarship is applicable to various levels of education so is flexible in duration.”

“I am a prostate cancer survivor because our healthcare system was able to identify my medical condition early enough that it could be promptly and completely treated. I want to insure that this level of care is available to everyone across Illinois. Most people needn't plan on serving a tour of duty in Iraq following their recuperation from surgery but they should expect to maintain a productive and high quality of life because of good healthcare and sound healthcare policies.”