New Baltimore City Health Commissioner Takes Over This Month
Regi Taylor | 3/8/2019, 6 a.m.
“We are fortunate to have attracted a candidate of Dr. [Letitia] Dzirasa’s caliber and broad experience to advance our agenda to improve the health prospects of all Baltimore residents,” Mayor Catherine Pugh announced as she introduced Baltimore’s newest city Health Commissioner.
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa will take over the nation's oldest continuously-operating municipal health department this month, established in 1793, overseeing a department of 800-plus employees and a $150 million annual budget.
Dr. Dzirasa, a pediatrician by training, earned her doctorate of medicine from Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and did her residency at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Most recently she worked as "health innovation officer" at a Baltimore-based software company, Fearless Solutions, which she founded with her husband, Delali. Dzirasa was formerly director of the Baltimore Medical System. As a pediatric specialist, her expertise will well serve Baltimore’s 130,000 youth under 18.
Dr. Dzirasa’s leadership role at the Baltimore Medical System was a precursor to her elevation to lead the Health Department. During her tenure, the doctor oversaw a substantial health and medical organization that employed 350 personnel and serviced more than 45,000 patients.
The Baltimore Medical System morphed from four existing City Health Department clinics in East Baltimore in 1984, transferred to the community-based, independent non-profit System’s management, which has since grown to six locations.
Designated as a school-based community health provider since 1987, Dr. Dzirasa, in her former post, administered services to eight public schools, elementary through high school, across seven city zip codes.
The Baltimore City Health Department has established behavioral health as its number one priority with the focus on attacking the Opiod epidemic. Baltimore has arguably the highest rate of heroin use and overdoses in the country, exacerbated by Fentanyl, and outpaces murder as a cause of annual deaths in the city.
Dr. Dzirasa faces one of the most challenging caseloads of any big city health department. Here is a snapshot of municipal health and health-related crises awaiting the new commissioner when she assumes office this month:
- • 30 percent of children in Baltimore have Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores of 2 or more, meaning that they have experienced more than two incidences of events such as domestic violence, living with someone with an alcohol/drug problem, the death of a parent, or being a victim/witness of neighborhood violence
- • Leading causes of death in Baltimore City are heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, and chronic lower respiratory diseases
- • Life expectancy differs by up to 20 years between city neighborhoods
- • Baltimore’s HIV diagnosis rate is more than twice that of the state—57.93 versus 24.64 per 100,000 residents
- • African Americans constitute 63 percent of the City’s population but account for more than 83 percent of those living with HIV in the City
- • One in three high school students is either obese or overweight
- • Less than half of middle school students have access to breakfast on a daily basis
- • Asthma-induced emergency department (ED) visit rate is three times the state rate
- • 12.3 percent of babies born in the city are low birthweight, compared to the
- national average of 8 percent
- • 23 percent of adults living in Baltimore are current smokers, compared to a state average of 15 percent
- • 11 percent of Baltimore City residents (aged 12 or older) are estimated to abuse and/or be dependent on illicit drugs or alcohol
- • There are approximately 20,000 active heroin users in Baltimore City
Dr. Dzirasa takes over as Baltimore City Health Commissioner from Dr. Leana Wen, who left this post to become president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.