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An Interview with Dr. Charlene Flash

Avenue 360’s president and CEO promotes a healthier local community.

Dr. Charlene Flash (photo courtesy of Avenue 360)

Tell me about your journey to becoming the president and CEO of Avenue 360.
I am trained in adult and pediatric medicine and infectious diseases. I have always been committed to ending the HIV epidemic by advancing HIV preventative care. Initially, I did that by providing HIV treatment to people living with HIV. When pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) was coming to the forefront, I did research on how to advance [this HIV-prevention drug] into underserved and marginalized communities. I wanted to see how to do that on a larger scale and moved here from New England (where I studied and trained) because Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, and I wanted to be someplace where I had the opportunity to make an impact. I joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and was serving at their flagship clinic at Thomas Street Health Center. I later moved on to become the associate chief medical officer at another federally qualified health center in Houston. Then I was tapped to become the president and CEO of Avenue 360. This was a really exciting opportunity for me because it allows me not only to care for my patients, but also to transform the way we think about providing care.

You began your role in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. How did the virus impact Avenue 360’s work?
I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and that we are each placed at the right spot at the right time in our lives. I think it was so fortuitous for me to join the agency at that time. What better pairing for this agency—to have a leader that is an infectious-disease provider when they were going to be hit with an international infectious-disease crisis. Coming in during that season was motivating because it blended all of the things that I get jazzed about. A lot of people see a crisis and run away, but I’m more of a run-toward-the-crisis type of person. It was an opportunity for us to thoughtfully think about how we were going to prepare for the pandemic. 

“Health is about not just physical wellness or the absence of disease, but about mental well-being and social wellness. So we really have to transform the way we think about health—a little bit more holistically.”

—Dr. Charlene Flash

What were some of the ways that you prepared?
We used the challenges that COVID created as an opportunity to look at our processes and become as efficient as possible. Sometimes people react much more quickly in a crisis than they would when everything is business as usual. We found that we were able to do things in weeks that in another season might have taken months or years, like launching telemedicine. People had been talking about that well before I got here. And then I said, “Hey, we have two weeks to launch this, because we have to.” People still need care, and some patients were scared to come in during the height of the COVID pandemic, so we wanted to make sure that our care was accessible for them.  

Now that there are fewer pandemic restrictions in Houston, how is Avenue 360 functioning?
Some of the things that emerged from the pandemic we continue to do. For example, we still have telemedicine available to patients, which has helped with transportation issues. In Houston, if there’s the opportunity to use your phone or computer to get the help that you need without driving across the city, that’s a benefit for our patients. We also started working with some of our housing partners to place clinical services in proximity to [their clients]. Another service that we ramped up was behavioral and mental health. Whether you have a mental illness or not, the pandemic impacted everyone’s mental health. We’ve made sure to have [more] psychiatry, therapy, and substance-use resources available to help stabilize the community.  

What are your day-to-day functions at Avenue 360?
That’s a hard question, because every day is so different. I will say that I wake up every day excited to come to work. I have not had a single boring day since the day I walked into this agency. I spend a lot of time meeting with my team and staff members. I truly believe that people are the secret sauce. I make it my business to hear from the very front lines. I take the time to really talk with all of our team members, whether it’s medical assistants, billing clerks, or front-desk positions. I try to make my presence known within the agency and let the team know that I want to hear from them, and that I’m here to try and make things work as well as possible for them so that together we can provide important services to the community. And then it’s strategic planning, responding to my own patient inquiries, writing prescriptions, handling budgets, and giving talks in the community about HIV, healthcare disparities, and racism in health care. 

What advice would you give to our LGBTQ readers who have questions or concerns about living with HIV?
First, it’s important that those individuals know that the rates and the risk of HIV are somewhat higher in their communities, and that they can access things like HIV testing and HIV PrEP. There are often ways to access those resources at low or no cost. Then, for people who are living with HIV, particularly from communities that are so often pushed to the margins, I want them to know that just because others try to push them to the margins, they don’t have to stay there. It’s important for their voices to be heard, and that they have affirming places to access care.

Tell me about the new Avenue 360 location in Midtown, and the kinds of services you offer there.
I’m super excited about our new location in Midtown at 2920 Fannin. It provides dental services, HIV primary care, and behavioral-health services. On the second floor, our adult day-activities program features a fabulous new commercial kitchen and occupational-therapy services as well. We also have HIV testing, and a service linking workers and medical case managers to help people walk through the other elements of life that impact their ability to be successful. We care for people living with HIV and those without the diagnosis, but our focus at the Midtown location is really on the LGBTQ community and those living with HIV.

Outside of work, what are some of your hobbies?
I’m married with three children, so they take over my life. I also love to work out. I actually like to lift weights. I was a little nervous about it at first, but now I think I’m somewhat addicted. I also love to read books and I love to watch [natural hair] YouTube videos. 

What are some of your favorite spots around town?
Hermann Park and the bike trail along Allen Parkway are my two favorite spots. One of the things I love about living in Houston is that it’s sunny all the time. I love to be outside, I love the sunshine, and I love looking at the beauty of creation. 

If you have any, what are your plans for the winter holidays?
I tend to stay local for Christmas. It’s one of my favorite holidays. For me, it’s a time for joy and being with your loved ones—low stress, just being grateful—so I try not to do much traveling so I can keep it peaceful and steady.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
As someone who has committed her life to caring for people with HIV and serving those who are placed on the margins (whether that’s because of their race, culture, or gender identity), I recognize that I have a white coat. I don’t have a black gown like a judge, because I am not here to judge people. [As a doctor], we’re not supposed to make it harder for people to access care. Our roles are to support, help, and get people to the space where they can have health not for just themselves, but for the community. And that doesn’t just mean having an undetectable viral load. Health is about not just physical wellness or the absence of disease, but about mental well-being and social wellness. So we really have to transform the way we think about health—a little bit more holistically. 

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This article appears in the December 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
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