Member Spotlight: Karen Smith

June 01, 2017|11:02 a.m.| Karen Smith

Karen Smith

Karen Smith, MD, is director of the California Department of Public Health. As a physician specializing in infectious disease and public health, Smith served as public health officer and deputy director at the Napa County Health and Human Services Agency prior to her appointment. She was also on the medical staff for infectious disease at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa from 2012 to 2014. 

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

I fell in love with public health when I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and Thailand. In the places where I lived in both countries, the healthcare system was rudimentary and largely engaged in what we call public health—e.g. working with communities to provide clean water, responding to outbreaks, and generally trying to ensure that environments were as healthy as possible despite desperate poverty.

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

When I was working as the tuberculosis control officer for a local health department in California over 10 years ago, a couple of my friends who were local health officers convinced me to apply for the position of health officer/director of Napa County Public Health. It was their confidence and the support and mentoring I received from many other local health officers, directors, and colleagues at the state health department and in the Napa community that made my success possible. Similarly, I accepted my current role because the state’s HHS secretary convinced me that I could make a difference. Several friends also agreed and encouraged me to accept.

What is your morning ritual?

I am a morning person and have a long commute, so I wake up early, get ready, and go. I have my coffee on the drive, catch up on the news, and get to the office around 7 a.m.

What do you do to stay healthy?

Not nearly enough! I love to bike, hike, and walk, but I probably don’t spend enough time doing them. In the winter, I try to get away for the occasional weekend of skiing. In addition, I do try to eat well as much as possible—that helps!

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

We have a small house in the mountains—that is my favorite place to be.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I love reading, biking, skiing, and almost anything that allows me to spend time outside. 

How has public health changed during your time in the field?

The most profound change I’ve seen during the past 20 years has been the shift away from public health as a safety net provider of clinical services for the poor. Now, in addition to public health’s earliest functions of communicable disease control and environmental health, we are increasingly not just recognizing the need to work on upstream determinants of health but actually doing it. When I started working in public health, we would never have been invited to a meeting about development planning or combatting poverty and racism. Now we are more often than not the ones convening these meetings. And we are using much more powerful and extensive information technology to provide the data needed to take action on some of our most pressing public health issues, as well as assessing what works and what doesn’t when action is taken.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?

I love feeling like I can make a difference, especially for those who our society treats most unfairly—and I love using science as a way of doing that.

What is your vision for the future of public health?

My vision for the future of public health is for communities to become more engaged in and take ownership of their health and wellbeing, holding themselves and their elected officials accountable for working together to create communities where everyone has an opportunity to be as healthy as they can. I believe governmental public health will increasingly provide the information and data that communities need to facilitate partnerships and create sustainable improvements in health.

What are three things public health leaders can do to educate and engage the communities they serve?

Ask for a seat at the table, and then listen and provide value to the conversation. Come to the table with information that reflects the science as we know it, and provide this science in a way that informs the conversation. Public health leaders should also bring to the table other partners who can support communities in achieving their priorities for health and wellness. I believe public health leadership is strongest when we lead from the middle. We should be strong partners who provide clear, unbiased support to communities for their priorities.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?

I am so thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the public health community. It is such an honor to work every day with so many passionate, smart, and dedicated people who share a mission to improve lives.