Faces of Public Health: Q&A with Joshua Sharfstein, MD

Sep 19, 2014, 1:52 PM

Faces of Public Health featuring Joshua Sharfstein, MD

In the last few months, several prominent national and state public health leaders have announced plans to move on to new things, including David Fleming, MD, MPH, the former Public Health Director in Seattle & King County Washington, who NewPublicHealth spoke with last month. We also recently spoke with Joshua Sharfstein, MD, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who will leave his post at the end of the year to teach at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University as part of the faculty of the School of Health Policy and Management.

Earlier this year, Sharfstein gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and had this to say about the importance of ensuring the public’s health:

“The premise of public health is that the well­being of individuals, families and communities has fundamental moral value. When people are healthy, they are productive, creative and caring. They enjoy life and have fun with their friends and families. They strengthen their neighborhoods and they help others in need. In short, they get to live their lives.”

NewPublicHealth: What prompted you to move to academia at this point in your career?

Joshua Sharfstein: It's a chance to help train hundreds of new public health leaders as well as work in depth on issues that are important to me. I am especially looking forward to getting to work closely with so many talented faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School.

NPH: How have your research and teaching skills benefitted from your time as deputy director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and your position with the state of Maryland?

Sharfstein: I've seen a lot of public health in action at the local, state and federal level. My goal will be to show students how important, interesting, engaging and—at times—strange public health can be. I have a research interest in why certain policies are pursued and others are not—and how public health can be successful in a difficult political and economic climate.

NPH: What accomplishments at FDA and in Maryland do you point to with respect to public health improvement?

Sharfstein: I've been fortunate to be part of great teams that have been able to make a huge difference for public health. At FDA, among other projects, we established the first tobacco regulatory program, won passage of a landmark food safety law, reorganized the medical device program and took caffeinated alcoholic beverages off of the market. In Maryland, we've seen progress in a broad range of health outcomes, including infant mortality, and are now focusing our energy on new threats, such as drug overdose.

NPH: How do you think the teaching of public health has changed from the time you were in medical school?

Sharfstein: When I went to medical school, public health and medicine were quite separate. Today, the term "population health" is used by both sides. The leaders of the health care system realize they have to care about whether communities are becoming healthier, and public health officials are understanding that resources for change will increasingly come by preventing unnecessary medical care.

NPH: Your training, like so many who go into public health, is in pediatrics. What was your road from pediatrics to public health?

Sharfstein: Pediatricians recognize the value of prevention, so it's an easy path to public health. After a fellowship in general academic pediatrics, I went to work for Congressman Henry Waxman in Washington, D.C. I applied for the position of Commissioner of Health in Baltimore simply out of interest and told the Congressman "I am applying for a job I don't want and won't get." He responded: "We'll see about that."

NPH: What reasons do you give when you encourage students to consider a career in public health?

Sharfstein: Public health is incredibly rewarding—both because of the nature of the work and its outcomes. The work itself uses data, values creativity and engages the public. And its outcome is healthier, longer lives for people in your city, county, or state. Recently, in our building's convenience store, one of the front line Medicaid staff pulled me aside to thank me and the department for our efforts to combat overdoses. She confided in me that her own son had lost his life, and I connected her to our outreach efforts to friends and family. It was a reminder that behind every project in public health is the goal of avoiding terrible pain and suffering.

NPH: How well is the United States doing in creating a culture of health?

Sharfstein: I think we have a considerable distance to travel. But in general, I think there is greater recognition of the opportunities for health all around us.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.