October 2, 2015 is National Disease Intervention Specialist (DIS) Recognition Day, a day that is celebrated annually on the first Friday in October to recognize this critical part of the public health workforce. The National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) led the development of DIS Recognition Day four years ago to celebrate and honor the often overlooked hard work DIS do every day as the backbone of STD and HIV programs across the country.
DIS work primarily in HIV and STD programs providing outreach, education, testing, and partner services. Their investigative, communications, interviewing, counseling, case analysis, and provider and community engagement skills are invaluable and are increasingly being leveraged in other program areas.
DIS are often called in to help respond to outbreaks and other public health emergencies. It was a DIS who identified the HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana earlier this year, and DIS from across the country traveled to Indiana to help with contact tracing and testing to stop the outbreak. During the domestic Ebola response, DIS were often the ones who provided active and direct active monitoring for people under investigation, such as those returning from affected countries. As the healthcare landscape evolves and new prevention interventions are developed, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention, the role of DIS continues to evolve. For example, DIS are increasingly engaged in efforts to serve as patient navigators and network builders to ensure linkage to care.
NACCHO is thankful to all DIS across the country for the incredible work they do to the improve health and wellbeing of people in the communities they serve. Today is a great opportunity to show your appreciation for DIS, which can be as simple as sending a thank you email. NCSD’s National DIS Recognition Day webpage provides a number of other examples of how health departments are thanking their DIS.
To honor and recognize the critical role of DIS, NACCHO spoke with Jenessa Teague, a DIS within the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at Columbus Public Health in Ohio.
How long have you been a DIS and what does your role entail?
I have been a DIS for exactly 15 months. I didn’t know what a DIS was before I applied to the position, but since I have a background in sexual health education it seemed like a good fit. The role is exceeding my expectations because I am able to use my past experience and my degree in Health Promotion and Behavior to have important health education conversations and use motivational interviewing to provide one-on-one counseling. Being a DIS in the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program is really important. We do testing for HIV, STIs, and hepatitis C. We are the only people offering hepatitis C testing in the field in Columbus. We typically work with people who are in detox and recovery programs, so it is important to include conversations about how to maintain sobriety through the harm reduction plans we develop with clients. There are many intersections in sexual health and recovery.
What is a typical day in your life as a DIS?
I would say that there isn’t a typical day and that is what keeps the job exciting. Working in the field every day is different, it is always changing, and there is a lot of direct service, which I enjoy.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
There are a lot of things that are rewarding about this job. Most of the time people just need someone to talk to. Being able to talk to someone and have them open up and trust you is very important. Another rewarding aspect of my job is the opportunity to give good news, such as a negative test result, especially when the client is worried. The look of relief on their face is very rewarding.
How do you see the role of DIS evolving as the public health and healthcare systems experience new opportunities, as well as challenges?
The role of DIS is evolving to expand what services DIS are providing, such as testing for hepatitis C. I am also hoping there is a more official linkage to care process for hepatitis C in the near future and that can involve DIS. With more people being insured with the Affordable Care Act, it helps DIS assist their clients to navigate care and provides more options for what care people receive. Although there are still challenges, it is definitely much harder to connect people to care when they don’t have insurance. Technology also impacts the work of DIS in general. With technology and how quickly people can meet, there has definitely been an increase in the number of HIV and STI cases and it harder to track down partners when they met online. This has a big impact on the workloads of my colleagues in the HIV and STI program.
What is one thing that you would like those who are not familiar with DIS to know?
DIS play a really important role in reducing the spread of STIs, since we are out in the field doing the groundwork. While it can be stressful at times, the work we are doing is really important in ensuring there are reductions in new infections. We are also equipped to share information and provide support that will help people develop the skills to prevent new infections in the future. We have genuine conversations with people to determine how they can reduce their risk in the future. I was really excited to learn about DIS Recognition Day. I appreciate knowing about the DIS Recognition Day because it is important for the DIS here at Columbus Public Health to be recognized for the challenging but very important work we are doing.