Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, a Johns Hopkins-trained Baltimore pediatrician with experience in high-tech information systems and community-based health care, will take over as the city’s health commissioner on March 11.
Mayor Catherine Pugh announced Wednesday that Dzirasa will succeed Dr. Leana Wen, who left the Baltimore Health Department in September after four years to head Planned Parenthood.
“We are fortunate to have attracted a candidate of Dr. Dzirasa’s caliber and broad experience to advance our agenda to improve the health prospects of all Baltimore residents,” Pugh said in a statement. “She will bring a commitment to reducing youth violence through evidence-based approaches, as well working to eliminate health disparities that persist, even while building on our progress to address the opioid epidemic and further improve access to critical care.”
Health commissioner is among the city’s most high-profile positions, overseeing an agency with a $150 million annual budget and more than 799 employees. The department oversees programs to ensure the public’s health, though leaders often find the city’s ills intractable, such as those stemming from addiction, mental health issues and chronic health conditions that have contributed a 20-year gap in life expectancy between the Baltimore’s wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods.
Dzirasa, the city’s first African-American woman to serve as health commissioner, follows a modern line of activist-style leaders who have gone to bat for funding or services they believed necessary.
In the 1990s, Dr. Peter Beilenson worked to overcome stiff political opposition to the nation’s first big-city needle exchange program, while Wen’s tenure was marked with tussles with the Trump administration over funding for teen pregnancy prevention and local health clinics and with the Hogan administration over the city’s share of grant money to counter the opioid epidemic.
At 37, Dzirasa will be older than three of the four previous health commissioners when appointed. She will earn $185,000.
The appointment requires City Council confirmation. Dzirasa will be introduced during a council hearing March 11.
Dzirasa said she will focus on issues that affect children, based on her experience. She sees the effects of violence and related trauma and the opioid epidemic, as well as access to food and other social determinants of health, as the roots of many of the city’s ills.
“I have a passion for addressing the issues that affect our youth,” Dzirasa said in an interview ahead of the announcement of her appointment. “I saw early on in my career that if you address the issues that affect kids early you can affect their trajectory.”
In her application for the job, provided to The Baltimore Sun, she cited three specific areas of focus: youth violence, obesity and food deserts, and the opioid epidemic. She acknowledged the task ahead. Fatal overdoses in the city, for example, have continued unabated for years despite significant attention and spending and remain the highest in the state.
“Hopefully, I’m coming in with fresh set of eyes,” Dzirasa said.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein is a former city health commissioner and state health secretary and served on the panel that picked Dzirasa.
“The search committee was very impressed with Dr. Dzirasa’s broad range of experience and deep commitment to the children and youth of the city,” said Sharfstein, now vice dean for public health practice and community engagement for Johns Hopkins’t Bloomberg School of Public Health. “She will quickly see not only are there many health challenges facing Baltimore, but also there are many opportunities to make life-saving progress.”
Wen congratulated Pugh for naming Dzirasa as health commissioner. She said she was proud of progress she was able to make on health disparities, reducing infant mortality and teen pregnancies and preventing overdoses, among other things.
“As a doctor, public health leader and a proud Baltimore City resident, I look forward to continuing to collaborate with Mayor Pugh, Commissioner Dzirasa, and the superb public servants in the Baltimore City Health Department as they continue to improve health and well-being for the city’s residents," Wen said.
Dzirasa said she hopes to build off and learn from other successful programs in the city, including one that provides glasses to students who needed them and another aimed at reducing newborn deaths.
Each of those programs involved other organizations, and such partnerships will be crucial, she said. She points to the city’s two big academic institutions, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, numerous nonprofit groups, other government agencies, corporations and community associations.
Dzirasa cited her nearly three years of experience working for a Baltimore-based software company she founded with her computer engineer husband Delali, called Fearless Solutions, as showing the value of data to target resources and evaluate progress.
The company specializes in healthcare and government technology aimed at social and civic impact. Workers there crafted a “dashboard” for the city health department that has been used to track so-called hot spots for opioid overdoses so area users and treatment providers can be warned. The system also can show officials where residents have other health needs. Technology also is in the works to track real-time availability of space in treatment programs.
Before Dzirasa became health innovation officer at Fearless, she worked for Baltimore Medical Solutions, a federally regulated health center for 45,000 uninsured and underinsured in the region. She held positions there overseeing school-based care and quality control.
Dzirasa’s first professional position after earning her state medical license in 2010 was as a pediatrician in a Hopkins doctor’s office in Odenton, where she primarily treated the families of military service members. She also completed her medical residency at Hopkins’ School of Medicine and is pursuing a master’s degree in health systems management at the University of Baltimore.
Her letters of recommendation to the city, included in her application, where from Dr. Michelle Gourdine, senior vice president of population health and primary care at the University of Maryland Medical System; Dr. Jessica Boyd, a supervisor at Baltimore Medical System; Sarah Hemminger, co-founder and CEO of Thread, a mentoring program for at-risk students; and Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
They pointed to her leadership skills and “passion” in pursuing “equitable access to care” through her professional work and volunteerism, including at Frederick Douglas High School in West Baltimore. The letters also cited her diplomacy and collaborative style.
Dzirasa grew up in Prince George’s County and lives in downtown Baltimore with her husband and two-year-old son and plans to walk to work at the health department on Fayette Street.