If you live in a nine county area in southern and central West Virginia, the name Rahul Gutpa may be a familiar one. During the January 2014 water crisis, Gutpa’s name became synonymous with the term “medical monitoring,” something he fought long and hard for during the weeks some West Virginians were without clean water and in the months after.
Since, the former director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County Health Departments has taken on a new role in government. Gupta was appointed as the state’s Commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health and chief health officer in January, overseeing 130 statewide programs and some 700 employees.
Three months in, Gutpa is still learning the ropes, but has big plans for his office to help improve the overall health of West Virginians.
“It is an exciting opportunity to be able to go from a county level to be able to make impact in the lives of West Virginians all across the state,” he said. “To me, to be able to have an opportunity to improve the health and well being of all West Virginians was critical.”
Gupta is seizing the opportunity in his new role to incite some changes, both within the Bureau and the state.
He’s started in very basic ways, talking to his employees about their experiences in the field, asking them what strengths they see in the system and, perhaps more importantly, what weaknesses. He’s encouraging them to share their ideas and suggestions to address those issues, taking a bottom up approach to governing.
But he also wants to begin changing the culture in West Virginia, from one of the unhealthiest in the nation to one that tops the health outcomes lists the state ranks so poorly on now.
“Only 20 percent of your healthcare is actually in your doctor’s office,” he said. “Eighty percent of that, how you stay healthy, happens in communities and environments that you live in, the foods you eat, the habits you have. So, there are many challenges.”
He knows addressing all of those challenges will take time, though, so he’s also focusing on short term goals that can help lead the state down a healthier path.
Gupta has begun the work necessary to centralize immunization exemptions at the state level according to a bill passed during the legislative session.
He continues to work with federal partners on monitoring programs as a result of the 2014 chemical spill. He’s even brainstorming ways to more effectively share his public health message through social media. He’s taken on a big task, but is hoping to make a difference one West Virginian at a time.