UH degree: MPH ’72 Mānoa
Michael Rodolico traces his passion for community health care to his experiences as a combat medic and preventative medicine specialist in Vietnam in 1968.
He was assigned to multidisciplinary Army Special Forces Civic Action Teams that went from village to village in Southeast Asia. Physicians and dentists provided treatment. Nurses dealt with family and children’s issues. Environmental members taught sanitation. Rodolico’s assignment focused on mosquitos, snakes and scorpions.
“Then we met at the end of the day as a group and compared what needed to be adjusted for the next day. It was the whole approach to health. As a young medic, that’s really where I got my basis for community medicine,” he recalls.
He combined those lessons with training and experience in health care administration and organizational development as the first executive director of Health Access Washoe County in Nevada. By the time he retired in 2011, the nonprofit multi-site community health center was handling more than 70,000 patient visits a year for medical and dental care.
The center was developed by the Washoe County Medical Society to treat the working uninsured of northern Nevada. Hired in 1995, Rodolico established the area’s first dental clinic for the uninsured and a free clinic for the homeless in 1998; opened a women’s health clinic in 1999; and started a pediatric mental health clinic in 2003.
Still, one demographic group, the elderly, lacked access to affordable dental care.
“You need adequate physical space to accommodate wheelchairs in the exam room; visits are longer and more complicated; and there are medication management issues,” he explained. “Overall it is a more complex and less profitable undertaking. Consequently, we had to put a cap on what we can provide. We can treat three to four kids to every one senior.”
Retired dentist Lloyd Diedrichson urged Rodolico to “do for seniors what we had done for children and families in oral health.” He helped provide the means by nominating Rodolico as a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader. The award for individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities provides $20,000 for personal development and $105,000 for a project of the leader’s choosing.
“I invested it in senior dental care,” said Rodolico.
The health center hosted a conference for oral health professionals, bringing experts from across the United States to address pharmacology, early detection of oral cancers and compassionate treatment of elderly people. The conference attracted 290 dentists and hygienists from 10 states.
Rodolico’s group improved their understanding of how to implement in-depth treatment plans and track complicated cases, learned new ideas for clinic design, became a more educated staff and had the funds to purchase upgraded software. The experience also “renewed our passion for securing grants” to expand patient care, Rodolico said.
“I wish I could say that seniors are getting everything they need, that the prices are low and access is high. It’s still a challenge, but the investment is worth it,” he said. “With a community health center, 50 percent of your board is patients. That’s where the priorities and ideas come from. They give you the authority to move forward.
“If you are true to your community, you have to stay grounded. I can’t take credit for the ideas, but I can take credit for developing a participatory culture—and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
In addition to his UH master’s degree in public health, Rodolico holds a BS in health science/psychology from the San Jose State University and a doctor of education from the University of New Mexico. After 12 years in health care administration in Arizona, he joined the University of New Mexico School of Medicine Emergency Medical Services Academy, where he served as emergency medicine program director and director of operations.