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Lessons from Baltimore: the Intersection of Public Health and Physician Activism

On Friday, April 14th, we attended a very inspirational program at the City Club titled "Lessons from Baltimore: the Intersection of Public Health and Physician Activism" in which the guest speaker was Dr. Leana Wen, M.D., MSc, FAEEM, Commissioner of Public Health for the City of Baltimore who leads the Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) which was created in 1793 and is thus the oldest, continuously-operating health department in the United States.

Dr. Wen focused her presentation on three "ideas" which guide her in her work which are:

1. She believes that success stories should be shared to gain necessary political support and increase public confidence that certain problems can be successfully addressed.  For example in 2009, Baltimore had an infant mortality rate that was comparable with countries experiencing civil war. As a result about 150 public and private parties "broke down their own silos" and joined forces to with "one common goal".  Subsequently, the B'More for Healthy Babies program was created which reduced which by 2015 reduced infant mortality by 38%.

2. Health care may cost a lot but it is much more costly to go without it both on a personal and societal level. If funding for mental and maternity care were to be repealed or radically reduced the short term savings may be immense but in the long term too many lives would be precariously damaged and to the necessary medical aid would be even more costly.

3. We must be brave and not be afraid to call out problems and admit past failings. As we know, the opiod epidemic is terrible and old ways of dealing with chemical dependency have met with limited, if any, success.  With this in mind, Dr. Wen discussed how many lives have been saved by the use of NARCAN and how she successfully fought to make this drug more accessible to people. Moreover, some 20,000 trainings on how to use NARCAN have been conducted in just two years.

We talked to Dr. Wen for just a moment after her presentation and learned that she immigrated to the United States from China with her family when she was only 8 years old. From what she said and from what we read about her, we believe Dr. Wen's positive attitude has changed the lives of many people for the better.

As was written in the City Club notes, "under her direction, BCHD leads the country in health innovations, including: ...Vision for Baltimore, an initiative to provide glasses to every child who needs them; Safe Streets, a program to engage returning citizens and hospitals in treating gun violence as a contagious disease; and Healthy Baltimore 2020, a blueprint for health and well-being that enlists all sectors to achieve the ambitious goal of cutting disparities in half in ten years."

Another program that Dr. Wen mentioned was one in which people who do not have geographical access to stores that provide them with healthy food can order the food on line and retrieve it weekly at certain sites like libraries and senior centers.  

In the beginning of her speech, Dr. Wen talked about two experiences which made her see that there is often a disparity between the doctor's point-of-view (as sincere as it is) and what patient is going through. The first one was when her own mother was afflicted with breast cancer and Dr. Wen (who was in medical training at the time) acted as her caregiver. Unfortunately, the doctors who were treating her mother were having a tough time understanding her mother's specific needs (her mother was older and had immigrated here from another country) and she often had to intervene. The other one was having to face up to the fact that she, as a doctor, could prescribe drugs to cure an ailment but if the patient lives in impoverished circumstances without access to healthy food or housing the positive effect of the drugs will be limited because the life circumstances which lead to the ailment will still be ongoing. These instances really motivated her to do her best to understand where the people she is trying to help are coming from and to let them know that she will attempt (and she seems to succeed quite often) to address the issue in a way that will yield a positive outcome with their needs front and center.

On this day at the City Club there were a number of people present who represented such health organizations as the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Dept. of Public Health, the Center for Health Affairs, and Neighborhood Family Practice. We introduced ourselves to Ms. Tamiyka L. Rose who just became the "Health Equity Ambassador" for the City of Akron and shared a table with Mr. Mark Smith from the Ohio Dept. of Education who works in the "Medicaid in Schools" program.

Also at our table was Mr. James Pollock who was visiting Cleveland from Missoula, Montana where he works as a medic in a hospital with the goal of becoming a physician's assistant. He told us that he was very glad that his father, Mr. Jeff Pollack who we often see at the City Club, brought him to this program.


Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC