Even though Marin is ranked as the healthiest county in California, that doesn’t mean Dr. Matthew Willis, the county’s new public health officer, has an easy job ahead of him.
“Marin has consistently had some of the highest health rankings of any county in the state, and that’s certainly something to be proud of,” said Willis in a recent interview in his new San Rafael office in the county'sHealth and Human Services department.
But Marin also has some of the highest degrees of health disparities in the state, Willis said. “There are significant portions of the Marin population that don’t enjoy the health benefits enjoyed by the majority.”
He said his job — which he started at the beginning of December — largely involves maintaining basic public health responsibilities including:
- Controlling communicable diseases
- Disaster preparation
- Ongoing disease surveillance
- Maintenance of a high-quality public health laboratory
- Protection against threats to health from our environment
Willis said he also plans to tackle some of the health disparities in Marin.
For example, life expectancy varies greatly between some Marin towns that are just miles apart; parts of San Rafael have the lowest expectancy in the county — 77 — while the nearby Ross has the highest expectancy at 94.
“When I see the life expectancy varying by 17 years in Marin, it’s clear that’s a main issue to address,” he said.
Other towns with high expectancies include Kentfield (87), and Larkspur, Tiburon, Belvedere and Mill Valley, which are all at 85. A study recently reported that Marin men have the highest health expectancy in the U.S.
“Your life expectancy should not be determined by your zip code. But in Marin it appears to be,” Willis said.
The least healthy regions of Marin include portions of West Marin, Marin City, the canal neighborhood in San Rafael and Hamilton in Novato.
“Some people living in certain areas don’t have the opportunity to make healthy choices in everyday life,” Willis said. This can include a lack of access to green space, safe bicycle paths and health foods options in some areas.
“I see it as my responsibility, as public health officer, to raise the bar for all of Marin’s residents,” he said.
Willis said Marin also has higher than usual rates of exemptions from vaccinations and higher than usual rates of alcohol use and binge drinking, including adolescent drinking.
Willis has already started working with the Mill Valley City Council to address data on leading causes of death, smoking rates, alcohol use and domestic violence rates.
“Mill Valley expressed an interest in partnering with Health and Human Services to review that data to help guide their initiatives and priorities,” he said, adding he hopes other Marin municipalities follow suit.
Even though Willis, 47, returned to Marin a few years ago, he grew up in here. It's where he developed a passion for road cycling.
He went to Wade Thomas Elementary and Hidden Valley Middle School in San Anselmo, where his father taught at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. His family moved to New Jersey before he started high school and since he has traveled extensively, first as a professional road racer on the United States National Cycling Team from 1987 to 1990 and then throughout earning his education and during his career that has “straddled public health and clinical medicine,” he said.
Before he went to the medical school he studied medical anthropology and spent a year in Africa volunteering in health clinics. After earning his medical degree from Temple University he earned a masters in public health from Harvard University.
He had been working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researching tuberculosis and HIV while spending a lot of time abroad in places including Haiti, Kazakhstan, India and Rwanda.
In Haiti, he spent a month living in a tent on the embassy compound after the 2010 earthquake to build a surveillance system for disease outbreak detection in the tent camps.
He started as an internal medicine provider in Marin Community Clinics in September 2011.
His wife, Heather — a physiatrist in Marin — and their three children, 13-year-old Lily, 9-year-old Thomas and 2-year-old Basil, settled in San Anselmo.
“I came back mainly for quality of life reasons,” Willis said. “We wanted to live in a healthy environment and a place where my wife and I could raise our family surrounded by the values that we’ve come to hold after moving around a lot.”