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Baltimore Health Commissioner: 'Public Health Is Tied To Everything'


We're going to hear some ideas now from someone who's working on that long-term project, Leana Wen. She is an emergency physician, and four months ago she became Baltimore's health commissioner. In the days since the unrest, she's been talking a lot about the role of public health in addressing the city's ills. First on her agenda - reaching the people she sees as the most vulnerable.

LEANA WEN: Let me give you a statistic that I find shocking. Our city has a population of about 620,000 people. There are 73,000 individuals who go in and out of our detention centers every year - 8 out of 10 of these individuals use illegal substances, 4 out of 10 have a diagnosed mental illness. What I would love to see are mobile crisis teams to help every individual coming out of our jails and out of our detention centers. These are the individuals who are the most costly in terms of societal resources, and they have the highest risk of being disruptive to their community and to continuing in the cycle of violence and trauma and incarceration. We really have to address this most vulnerable population, but we also have to make sure that we have treatment on demand 24/7 for anyone who needs it.

CORNISH: When it comes to policymaking on these issues - fighting poverty and violence - are public health officials also-rans? Like, are you guys even in this discussion, and what's it like trying to force your way in?

WEN: It is our job as public health leaders to make the case that public health is tied to everything and that we should not just talk about public health when things go wrong. People tend to think of public health as this boring entity that we hear about when there are outbreaks of infections or when there are rats running around and restaurants being unclean. We have to make the case that actually everything comes back to health - that we cannot talk about poverty without also addressing the heroin epidemic and what it's done in terms of crime and unemployment for citizens. We cannot talk about better health care and better jobs if we're not addressing the core problems that people have when it comes to shelter and employment that also tie closely into health as well.

CORNISH: You mentioned crisis teams and a 24-hour treatment center, but do you have the money to do this? Have you been given the money to do this?

WEN: We don't have the money to do much of the work that we would like to do. My hope is that with everything that's happened in Baltimore - with the attention that our city now has that we can really make Baltimore into a model for the rest of the country to follow when it comes to treating the core roots of our problems.

CORNISH: You're speaking optimistically. You're also fairly new to the job. How optimistic are you really about tackling these entrenched problems?

WEN: Baltimore has a long history of innovation in public health. We are the oldest public health department in the country, and we have a long history of taking on different issues...

CORNISH: But I mean - I'm sorry, Doctor Wen. I mean you personally. Like, you're new to this job, and a few months in, there is, you know, a riot in the streets. And how optimistic are you really about being able to tackle some of this?

WEN: I see this as an opportunity. Finally, public health is at the forefront in major newspapers and on the radio and on TV. We're talking about lead paint and the problems that it may have caused in Freddie Gray's life. We're talking about differences in life expectancy by ZIP code - all these issues that are core to what we do in public health. So I'm optimistic because I'm glad that these issues are finally being raised in the public consciousness.

CORNISH: Doctor Leana Wen - she's the Baltimore city health commissioner and an emergency physician. She's also a regular contributor to Shots, NPR's health blog. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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