Karen DeSalvo, a doctor-turned-policy expert, who is Google’s chief health officer is responsible for the technology and tools that can improve access to health care for all.
What motivated you to pursue your career as a physician in the field of public health?
My mother was employed in a medical clinic I was working on an article in a science class about radiation therapy when I was about 13. So, I went in and watched the shadows, thinking that to myself “This really is a great opportunity. It’s the perfect combination of two of my interests in scientific research and helping others and I am confident that I will be an ophthalmologist.” Everything went as planned because I was able to enter medical school and earn a master’s of public health. Over the past twenty years, I’ve been working as a doctor.
What inspired you to become the health commissioner of New Orleans?
I was a faculty member in the Tulane University School of Medicine at the time Katrina hit in 2005. It was a time of conducting studies, teaching students, and visiting patients. When the storm hit and we were hit with floods by water, everything came to an abrupt halt.
This prompted the need to reflect which was to be too simple. It made me think, “What am I doing this for?” I realized that certain things I was working on for research, such as writing, required to be put off to aid in the development of an entirely new system of health care that had a greater focus on prevention and health for the community. In the first 7 years that followed the catastrophe, I concentrated on building a solid primary health system. But then you realize, it’s true that good primary care is essential but if someone suffers from diabetes and I need to administer insulin to them it’s a whole new story.
It isn’t a matter of how great the primary care I provide in the event that they don’t have the power within their home to keep the insulin cool or have a home. So when I was formally invited to become an official in the City of New Orleans’ health commissioner I took it as an opportunity to address the important systemic issues that were affecting my patients. This I did through collaborations like FitNOLA which is a multi-faceted initiative that addresses mental, physical, and social health.
So, how do think about your current position as Google’s top health official?
I joined the company just after I joined the company as the COVID epidemic was making headlines around the globe. My day-to-day work is to ensure that Googlers are well taken care of, first by figuring out ways to leave the workplace, and then by working out the best way to get back to work after the deadly disease. However, it’s also about aiding in the development and implementation of tools to the public health field to help them perform their work more effectively so that they can serve everyone.
Since you joined Google you’ve been part of a variety of new tools that have been launched. Which did you believe was the most successful or has the most impact?
It was the Community Mobility Reports, which monitored whether people were staying clear of stores, grocery stores, and workplaces when stay-at-home guidelines were in place during COVID’s peak. We also worked with the Satcher Institute at Morehouse’s School of Medicine. Leadership Institute to develop a Health Equity Tracker which demonstrates the ways in which COVID is disproportionately affecting Black, Latinx, and other minorities.
We’re also developing a dermatological AI tool that will help users in narrowing down the list of possible skin diseases. This isn’t related to COVID. We recognize the value in technology, and the ways it could help greatly in the democratization of access to top-quality medical treatment. It is important to ensure that the tools are accessible and appropriate for all types of skin.
What impacts has your work had on your perception of the world?
I realized at an early stage that people had a lot on their minds and feelings. People will tell you things they’ve never shared with anyone else before when you shut the door to the exam room and it’s only the couple of us. There are layers to them and we have to be open and understanding of them. The public health aspect can teach me how the majority of my patients are affected by structural and systemic problems. Since there’s a patient, but they are part of the system, I have an ever-changing jiggle in my brain. What should we do to modify the system?