Dr. Mark Wilson: A Journey Driven by Compassion and Advocacy

In October, ASF Director Kristin Boggs met with outgoing Jefferson County Health officer to reflect on his  professional journey and the impact he’s had on the health of his community. As an inspiring way to end 2023, we saved this second article of a two-part series highlighting the impact that Dr. Wilson has had on the health of Jefferson County citizens.

Stepping into retirement, Dr. Wilson looks back on his role as Health Officer, which as he stated, “It is the best job in the world. You can do a lot with [the role]. You don’t have to be a genius. You have to have some help from other people. You have to have good partners, and you have to want to do good. And you have to really care about your community.”

Reflecting on his tenure, Dr. Wilson acknowledged that while progress has been made in various areas, there remain significant challenges,  but highlighted several areas where positive changes have occurred.

One notable achievement has been the reduction in infant mortality rates, with a particular focus on addressing racial disparities. Dr. Wilson’s dedication to this issue has driven efforts to fund programs and initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for vulnerable populations, like Nurse Family Partnership and From Day One.

Smoking rates have also seen a decline, thanks to initiatives driven by the health department, including the promotion of smoke-free ordinances in several cities within Jefferson County. While progress has been made, the rise of vaping among youth poses new challenges that require continued attention.

Dr. Wilson’s leadership has contributed to a decline in new HIV diagnoses, largely due to the introduction of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication. However, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns about potential setbacks in this area.

Efforts to enhance access to outdoor recreation spaces and primary care have been successful, improving the overall quality of life for residents. Moreover, significant strides have been made in reducing air pollution, resulting in compliance with national ambient air quality standards.

However, Dr. Wilson acknowledged that the challenge of addressing obesity remains stubborn, the prevalence of Fentanyl abuse is increasing, as is the prevalence of gun violence. Wilson noted, “In spite of a lot of effort and a lot of great programs and helping a lot of people individually…we don’t always move the needle on the big numbers, the overall rates. If that’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s just very hard to do. There’s so many social determinants of health and things that go into whether people are healthy or not that we don’t control.”

When asked for advice on staying motivated despite the challenges of public health work, Dr. Wilson emphasized the significance of staying connected with the community. He encouraged fellow practitioners to venture out of their offices and engage with individuals who have been positively affected by their efforts.

Dr. Wilson’s advice to his colleagues is grounded in the belief that hearing stories from the community can rekindle passion and reaffirm the importance of their work. Dr. Wilson recounts a trip to North Birmingham, where he connected with residents concerned about heavy industrial activities impacting their health. He acknowledged the disconnect between the data and anecdotal evidence, but emphasized the value of empathetic listening and understanding their distress. These interactions fueled his determination to work for the betterment of Jefferson County communities. “These folks are just concerned that their quality of life is affected by the fact that their neighborhoods are right next to all this heavy industry, which shouldn’t have happened in the first place. It’s helped energize me and make me want to do more for those communities,” he says. Despite the complexities and frustrations of addressing public health challenges, these personal interactions provide hope and inspiration.

Dr. Mark Wilson’s legacy in public health is not merely defined by policy changes and statistics. It is a legacy of compassion, community engagement, and a profound commitment to improving lives. His tenure as Health Officer for Jefferson County has left an enduring mark on the region, reminding us that public health is fundamentally about the well-being of individuals and communities.