If you were to picture your idea of a typical Berkeley MPH student, someone like John Thomas “J.T.” Lane would probably not be the first—second, third, or fourth—person to come to mind. As assistant secretary for public health with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), he leads a large team responsible for improving the health and well-being of the entire state of Louisiana.
On the other hand, Lane is, in many ways, the quintessential student in the On-Campus/Online Professional Master of Public Health Degree Program. The program was designed to allow full-time professionals like Lane to continue their careers while continuing their education. In fact, it fit so well with Lane’s needs and goals that it was the only program he applied to.
“I researched several programs and quite a few allowed the flexibility to be working long distance, but this one just really fit the best,” he says. “It was really going to allow me to expand my knowledge and give me the new skills I wanted. It’s a new model of learning, and I could tell everything was well thought out and carefully planned.”
It’s not surprising that something well thought out and carefully planned appeals to Lane, as that is clearly a hallmark of his approach to work and learning. As well, he sees no reason why these two endeavors can’t be perpetually combined.
“I’m a big believer in matching work experience with academic experience,” he says. “I operate from a standpoint that I will never stop learning. If I could, I would go to school forever. I love learning, but I like working because change is hard work; finding the right way to do it, to communicate it, and ensure you’re careful along the way…it’s fun for me.”
Even at age 19, Lane was working full-time with a business development firm in Texas while earning his bachelor’s degree in mass communications at Louisiana State University. “I might have had class Tuesday/Thursday, and I would fly out to Houston for Thursday night and work Friday, stay the weekend, work Monday, fly back Monday night, go to class Tuesday,” he illustrates.
Following a brief stint with Exxon Mobile, Lane returned to LSU as a staff member working in the Office of Research & Economic Development, promoting the efforts of the university and how they were contributing to the economy of the State of Louisiana. And he continued his education as a university employee, taking classes in English, pre-med, social work, and psychology.
“Somehow it was all a little too focused and it wasn’t quite capturing everything I wanted to do,” Lane says. “And then I started learning about public health.”
In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Lane joined the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, which was created to respond to the needs of Louisiana families and individuals affected by the disaster. It was there that his eyes were opened “in a huge way” to public health and everything it encompasses.
“I realized that everything I loved, worked in, and studied really culminated in public health,” he says. “When I look back, I realize I’ve always had a great, deep appreciation for it. Because it’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding work.”
Working with the Recovery Corps also gave Lane experience with the U.S. Congress and advising congressional delegates, as well as the state legislature and national and international funders and foundations. “We collected a lot of data and did some policy analysis in order to make recommendations to Congress and the state legislature,” he says. “We told the story of what it was like for these families and individuals to restart their households, maintain their health, basically to restart their lives completely, to do a ‘reboot.'”
These experiences all proved useful to Lane as he moved into his next role, deputy chief of staff for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He advised the DHH secretary and worked closely with the legislature and other stakeholders on health policy. Lane was later promoted to chief of staff, and the department was tasked with transforming the state’s Medicaid system, moving from a fee-for-service model to a capitated system.
“That was probably the single biggest transformation of the health care system of the state in years and many, many people in the Medicaid program put in many hours and lots of love into changing the program,” recalls Lane. “This was for almost a million people.”
As chief of staff, Lane was instrumental in addressing the concerns of the health care providers, identifying their issues, and working with Medicaid to provide solutions, all while keeping an eye on the Affordable Care Act as it worked its way through Congress.
Lane also advised the state’s first birth outcomes initiative, a program designed to reverse the number of C-sections that the Medicaid program was performing and decrease the premature birthrate as well. The department’s team of clinical and policy experts persuaded every birthing hospital in Louisiana to adopt a policy banning elective C-sections and deliveries prior to 39 weeks of gestations, leading to better birth outcomes and a decrease in costs.
After two years as chief of staff, Lane was appointed by Governor Jindal to his current position of assistant secretary for public health in October 2011. Less than three months later, Lane began the On-Campus/Online MPH program at Berkeley, and he graduated this May. He characterizes his experience as extremely positive and the faculty as unbelievably supportive. He also enjoys learning from his fellow students: “They are very high caliber; they have great diversity of backgrounds, which really enriches all of our collective experience. Whether we’re on campus, working through an online forum, emailing, or on video or phone conferences—I’ve learned a lot from every single one of them.”
Lane says the program is “addressing what’s going on in the profession today; it’s a very forward view of public health” and has real-world application for him in the Louisiana Office of Public Health, where he leads a team of about 1,200 engineers, doctors, chemists, biologists, nurses, sanitarians, clinicians, emergency preparedness experts, and other professionals. They handle a wide range of health services for the state, including preventive clinical services, infectious disease epidemiology, laboratory, safe drinking water, health inspections, and community health promotion. As Louisiana has historically fared poorly in health rankings—for example ranking 50th in obesity, 48th in diabetes, and 48th in overall health—there are a lot of challenges for Lane to tackle.
One of the office’s successes during Lane’s tenure has been the creation of Well Ahead LA, launched in April 2014 the first-ever statewide program to create healthy locales, designated as WellSpots. The Health Promotion Team collaborates with worksites, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and other places to help them meet wellness benchmarks, like being tobacco-free or breastfeeding friendly. A place or organization that has implemented voluntary, smart changes to contribute to healthy living is designated a Level 1, 2, or 3 WellSpot, with a badge that goes on the main entrance of the building.
Other achievements include building the new Center for Population Health Informatics, which is breaking down data silos for a more comprehensive and sustainable impact on community health. Also, Lane and his leadership team have introduced a more performance-focused culture through the use of Lean Six Sigma methodology across several programs with more to come.
In addition to running Louisiana’s public health office and earning his master’s degree, Lane co-chairs the National Performance Policy Improvement Committee of the Association of State and Territorial Officials—the national nonprofit organization representing public health agencies in the United States—with Rob Chapman, public health director for the State of California. Lane also serves on ASTHO’s board of directors.
“I feel very fortunate to have spent the last four years working with people who are really committed to finding new and innovative ways to make our country a healthier place,” he says. “Not only with my staff in Louisiana, but countless others, in California and all across the country.”
And, he adds, “You know, you can never do too much. You can never do enough when it comes to the health and vitality of our families, to give them healthy, safe communities in which to grow.”