Baltimore's new health commish, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, on community care and tech - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Mar. 20, 2019 5:42 pm

Baltimore’s new health commish, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, on community care and tech

In her first week, we talked to the pediatrician and former Fearless health innovation leader about her new role leading the city agency.

Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore City's new health commissioner.

(Courtesy photo)

Correction: The Baltimore City Health Department is the oldest continuously operating health department in the country. (2:30 p.m., 3/21/19)
By the time she was 5 years old, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa knew she wanted to be a doctor. By the time she was 7 or 8 years old, her mother would say, she talked about helping people who didn’t have health insurance. It was the beginning of a conviction that’s shaped her path.

“Every patient, regardless of ability to pay, regardless of status, deserves the utmost quality of care,” Dzirasa said in an interview. It came a few days after she began as acting Baltimore City health commissioner on March 11, following her appointment in February. She was introduced at a City Council hearing this week, and the body will vote on whether to confirm the appointment.

Dzirasa, who attended UMBC for undergraduate studies, put serving the community into practice during public health fairs while studying to become a pediatrician at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. As a resident at Johns Hopkins Medicine, she worked at Harriet Lane Clinic, which serves the community in East Baltimore.

Along with visits at the office, she saw the impact of health workers and social workers who made home visits, and “how they were implementing practices to help patients address their needs outside of what we did in the clinic,” she said. Working at a Johns Hopkins center in Odenton, she worked with military families. And during multiple leadership roles with Baltimore Medical System, which serves 40,000 clients, she worked with students in Baltimore city schools in programs that involved meeting their most basic needs.

“I loved being able to meet students where they were,” she said.

That stint at Baltimore Medical System was also when she put technology to work for a large organization as a tool to be able to reach more patients. In developing new tech tools, she said, the team thought about the end user, and how they could make them easy for all patients to use.

That work came into further focus at Fearless, the 10-year-old downtown Baltimore software firm where she began leading health IT and business development in 2016.

When the opening at the health department arose following Dr. Leana Wen’s hiring as president of Planned Parenthood, Dzirasa said she saw a role that reflected many of her experiences, and what she cares about. She is the first African-American woman to be appointed to the top role at what’s commonly known as the country’s oldest continuously operating health department.

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The desire to address issues beyond what’s available at a clinic is also evident in the three priority areas she identified as key to address with prevention and treatment as she begins as health commissioner, which represent some of the city’s toughest challenges:

  • Youth violence
  • Food access
  • Opioid addiction and substance abuse

Dzirasa had previous experience working with teams at the health department at Baltimore Medical System. Through the agency’s TECHealth program in 2017, Fearless worked on a data dashboard for the health department that tracks public health data such as deaths in the city, including causes.

As health commissioner, she is looking at tech integration from the perspective of, “How do we infuse and integrate technology into the work that we’re already doing,” she said. She is standing up a quality council to explore how new approaches could improve processes, and puts a priority on being able to access good data in real-time to make decisions.

Coming from a tech company, she also sees opportunity to bring some of the day-to-day practices that go with developing software into the public sector agency with 800 employees.

“There’s typically this culture in tech of things moving quickly, of collaboration, which I think is necessary. So I’m happy to be able bring some of the skills from a tech company to the health department,” said Dzirasa, who lives close enough to the Fayette Street health department HQ to walk to work frequently from her home, where she lives her husband Delali (Fearless’ founder) and son.

One early sign: The senior leadership team already transitioned to Slack. “Everyone’s been super receptive,” she said.

In the health department, she credits CIO Mike Fried with leadership on tech efforts, and also sees initiatives started under Wen and past leaders that are already underway and can be expanded, such as a virtual supermarket program to expand food access, another to address infant mortality and one that started with Johns Hopkins to provide Warby Parker glasses to city school students. With programs like TECHealth, which offered new tools for the health department and also engaged local startups and technologists in work on civic projects, Dzirasa sees a way to work with tech community.

“There are plenty of companies within the current Baltimore tech ecosystem that would love to help and love to solve some of the problems at the health department,” she said.

Coming from one of those companies, she’s in a position to know.

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