PARTNER PROFILE minutes with
Karen B . DeSalvo , MD , MPH , MSc , is chief health officer at Google Health . She is an adjunct professor of medicine and population health at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center . She is a nationally recognized health policy leader working at the intersection of medicine , public health and information technology to improve the health of people and their communities .
She served as the acting assistant secretary for health and national coordinator for health information technology at the US Department of Health and Human Services ( HHS ) in the Obama Administration . While at HHS , she launched Public Health 3.0 , a vision for 21st century public health . This included a multi-sectoral collaborative to drive a community-based and focused model grounded in primary care , enabled by health information technology , and supported by a value-based payment . Prior to that role , she served as the New Orleans health commissioner , where she led a re-engineering of health care in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina , and was vice dean for Community Affairs and Health Policy at Tulane School of Medicine and chief of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics .
DeSalvo is the immediate past president of the Society of General Internal Medicine and past honorary vice president , United States , for the American Public Health Association . She is a member of the National Academy of Medicine ( NAM ) where she serves on the Culture of Health Board , was a member of the Committee on Integrating Social Needs into Health Care and the NAM / RWJF Assessing Community Engagement in Health and Health Care Committee . She earned her MD and MPH from Tulane University , and MSc from the Harvard School of Public Health .
What first drew you to public health ?
My first job in public health was during college when I worked for the Massachusetts State Laboratory Institute . I started with a summer job in college testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning . They were able to keep me on , which was wonderful because I was supporting myself through college , and working in public health was closer to my interests in medicine ( I was pre-med ) than waiting tables . I was honestly thrilled at the opportunity . I had a variety of roles before graduating , ranging from the environmental lab , to policy to HIV efforts like outreach and serving as an HIV testing counselor . I fell in love with the practice of public health . It was there I met mentors who have shaped and guided my thinking about the importance of a systems approach to improving the public ’ s health .
How is the role of public health changing , especially in our current COVID-19 world ?
The scale of the pandemic has reminded us of the vital role of public health , but also that it has been under-resourced to meet 21st century challenges . There have been good examples of collaboration between public health , medicine and technology in the pandemic aimed at helping individuals stay informed , developing countermeasures , and enabling public health to interrupt the spread of COVID-19 so communities can open again . At Google , we have prioritized helping public health authorities get out timely , accurate information . We have also been able to support public health decision making with tools like our Community Mobility Reports and COVID-19 Public Forecasts model .
You served as New Orleans Health Commissioner while the city and region were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina . What were some of your biggest challenges ?
While working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina , it became clear that we had a demoralized and outmoded public health department — in a city that desperately needed strong public health . But by following the pathway of the Public Health Accreditation Board , we transformed New Orleans from having one of the worst public health departments to being one of the first accredited departments in the country . While public health accreditation work was just starting , we were able to use it as a blueprint for what a 21st century health system should look like . The career staff were instrumental in this success . A critical part of this journey was working with the community to identify their priority challenges , which were violence , mental health and physical / nutritional fitness , and create cross sectoral collaborations to make progress .
The cracks in public health infrastructure have become very apparent during the current pandemic . How can public health laboratories find a way forward ?
There is no doubt that public health has struggled to do its job from the beginning of the pandemic starting with issues in standing up testing capabilities , leading us down a pathway of more privatization of public health . At the same time , public health has been heroic in finding ways to meet the needs of their communities , despite a lack of resources and facing criticisms . I ’ ve seen incredible leadership from regional health officers like Sara
10 LAB MATTERS Summer 2020