ONC chief’s early years inform her work
January 16, 2014 in Medical Technology
Karen DeSalvo, MD, has stepped into the role of national coordinator for healthcare information technology at a time when American healthcare is in a state of unprecedented change.
Her resume shows that DeSalvo has the right mix of skills to advance the healthcare system while helping the IT industry create better tools for providers and patients alike.
A practicing internist, she recently led a purchasing committee select a new EHR system. DeSalvo served as the New Orleans public health commissioner until recently, after working at Charity Hospital and Tulane University’s medical school.
[See also: HHS appoints new ONC chief.]
DeSalvo’s experience in New Orleans — such as patients suffering end-stage diseases that could have been prevented or mitigated and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina — combined with her upbringing, left her with concerns about inequality in access to healthcare and an insufficient medical communications infrastructure.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, with a single mother, “I experienced healthcare through the public system,” in “public clinics that were not as a consumer-friendly as we would like,” DeSalvo told the Health IT Policy Committee during her second day on the job.
Regardless of how friendly and coordinated the providers were, “my mother made sure we took care of ourselves,” she said. “That’s the foundation for how I think about healthcare.”
DeSalvo studied biology and policy science at Suffolk University in Boston, where she also worked in public health on HIV and AIDS, before returning to the South for medical school and a public health degree at Tulane.
As part of the National Health Service Corps in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she ended up working at the Charity Hospital, one the country’s first hospitals that served the New Orleans’ poor for more than two centuries before it closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It “was mecca,” she said, and also where she met her husband, another resident.
“That was formative for me not only as training,” DeSalvo said. “I had a chance to see patients in that environment and realized that though it was a good learning opportunity, it was really not what we should see for any person on the planet, much less the richest country in the world… people should not walk into the emergency department with end-stage disease.”
[See also: Health leaders react to ONC’s new chief.]
Patients were routinely treated for end-stage cancers, adults with undiagnosed congestive heart failure and syphilis. “This was between 1988 and 1996,” she said. “Not in the 1950s.”
As a fellow at Tulane she took over the resident training clinic, which “was a mess and had to be straightened up,” and as chair of Charity Hospital’s medical records committee, she and others considered installing a computer-based system.
For myriad reasons, the idea “didn’t stick,” she said.