State public health director Lillian Shirley to retire this fall

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Public Health Division director Lillian Shirley, who worked to increase awareness of the social factors affecting people’s health and led the state’s effort to modernize its public health system, is retiring.

Shirley, who has served as the Oregon Health Authority division’s leader for the last seven years, plans to step down in early fall.

Shirley says serving as director since 2013 has been an honor.

“I am particularly proud of our ability to commit to and lead the effort to modernize our structures and public health work for the long game,” she said. “We made a commitment to build on our values of social justice to transform the way we do the work of public health as described in our new State Health Improvement Plan. We have learned new ways to hold ourselves accountable to the science of public health in collaboration with the wisdom of our communities.”

She said she’s retiring so she can “set a pace where I can make more time for my family.” She hasn’t ruled out continuing to work in public health after retirement, but said she will take a break “and then decide how I can best contribute to the work that needs to be done.”

Patrick Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, called Shirley’s impending departure “a huge loss” for OHA and for the state.

“She has been an extraordinary leader for public health and a fierce devotee of the state’s local public health authorities, and moved the Public Health Division and OHA in a new direction that improved the health of every Oregonian,” he said. “I will forever be grateful for her patience in helping me understand public health generally, but especially Public Health Modernization, and over time make me a more effective champion for the resources we need for a modern public health system.”

Shirley, raised in Philadelphia and educated in and around the Boston area — including at Harvard and Boston universities — spent 14 years in numerous public health related leadership roles in Boston, including as director of family health services and director of public health for the City of Boston, and executive director of Boston’s Public Health Commission. She came to Portland in 1999 to serve as director of the Multnomah County Health Department until 2013, when she moved to the Oregon Public Health Division.

She was an early proponent of Oregon’s health system transformation, the initiative designed to move the state from a costly, fragmented health system to one that is coordinated and affordable for everyone, and was a co-founding vice chair of the Oregon Health Policy Board. The transformation effort laid the foundation for Public Health Modernization, the legislatively supported plan to build up the state’s public health infrastructure and workforce, so critical health protections are in place for every person in Oregon; the system is prepared to address emerging health threats; and it’s engaged daily to eliminate health inequities among vulnerable populations, such as communities of color.

Shirley also sought to raise awareness of the effects that social factors such as racism, childhood trauma, availability of living-wage jobs, food security, and access to health care can have on health. These “social determinants of health” infused the Public Health Division’s programs during her tenure, and led to development, with significant community input, of the 2020-2024 State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP). Its priorities include addressing institutional bias; adversity, trauma and toxic stress; economic drivers of health, such as housing and transportation; access to equitable preventive health care; and behavioral health.

That dedication to health equity, Shirley says, helped set the state up to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This dedication has served us well as we are confronted with an unprecedented pandemic that puts the lives of those we serve at risk both physically and emotionally,” she says. “We came together to shepherd our response through this incredibly complex public health mission. We challenged our assumptions. We built on our systems and fearlessly modified them in short turnarounds to respond better and build transparency in how we communicate with the public. We saved many from devastating illness. We saved many lives. This was and is heroic work.”

Shirley will announce the date of her retirement later this summer.