We already knew that Baltimore’s new health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, is a TED Talk sensation and advocate for patients, but yesterday she gave a closer look at why she left the Emergency Room to head Baltimore’s health department in an essay at NPR.
Wen recounts an experience early on in her medical training that demonstrated the disconnect between doctors and public health. When inquiring into why an ER patient missed all three of her dialysis appointments that week, she learned that the woman’s “son had been arrested, and he was the one who drove her back and forth from the dialysis clinic. She couldn’t pay her bills, and her electricity had been shut off.” She brought this information to her supervisor, who told her, “It’s not your job to open Pandora’s box. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.”
Since then, and as she characterizes it, against pressure from her superiors, she has been interested in the social and environmental factors in health and in reforming the doctor-patient relationship. Her interest and activism led her to take up policy issues crucial to public health — such as walkable streets and access to healthy food.
In her new role as Baltimore’s health commissioner, she said she is “ready to tear Pandora’s box wide open” and tackle issues of poverty, healthcare access, and substance abuse among others. She’s weathered death threats in response to her advocacy for patients, which has included pushing doctors to disclose their financial relationship with drug companies, so it’s likely she’s up to the challenge.
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