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Introducing Chicago’s New Health Commissioner

A natural flow from being a pediatrician

By Scott Warner

On April 15, the Chicago City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment of Julie Morita, MD, as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). A 16-year veteran of CDPH, Dr. Morita was most recently chief medical officer, serving as a key advisor and liaison on all medical matters for the City. Born and reared in Chicago, Dr. Morita is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, and a board-certified pediatrician.

For 12 years, Dr. Morita served as medical director of CDPH’s immunization program, where she fostered groundbreaking partnerships with health systems and the private sector and secured several competitive grant awards for the City. Dr. Morita helped launch the citywide influenza vaccination program, Vaccinate Chicago Week, which proved so successful it grew to Vaccinate Illinois Week in 2013.

As chief medical officer, Dr. Morita oversaw a broad range of CDPH programs including food protection, environmental permitting, immunization and communicable disease. In this role, she has also led the City’s preparedness planning efforts on the Ebola virus, including the launch of the Chicago Ebola Resource Network (CERN). During the recent Ebola scare in the United States, this local network quickly drew together Chicago’s major health facilities and community hospitals into a coordinated effort to effectively deal with an unlikely case of Ebola here in Chicago.

On a personal note, Dr. Morita is married to William Trick, MD, an internist, who is the director of the Collaborative Research Unit at John H. Stroger, Jr., Hospital of Cook County. The couple has two children, daughter Megan, 18, and son Jake, 13. “I discuss all kinds of health care issues with my family,” Dr. Morita says. “They serve as a mini-focus group for me to test new public health messages.”

Shortly after being named CDPH commissioner, Dr. Morita sat down with Chicago Medicine and discussed her new role and what she plans to accomplish. Here’s a synopsis of our conversation:

How did you go from being a pediatrician to overseeing the CDPH?

It just seemed a natural flow; in my pediatric practice I had been talking to so many parents about preventative health care: immunizations, using car seats, child safety locks. But I had a desire to impact more people than just having one-on-one interactions. So I joined the CDPH 16 years ago and was able to reach a larger audience and have an impact on a wider range of diseases.

Can you elaborate on how you did this?

Our department has the opportunity to look at root causes of health issues in communities, like poverty, housing and transportation, which all are tied to public health. And I do have an opportunity to work with critical decision-makers, like the mayor, aldermen, leaders in health care, and in the community. In 2013, CDPH worked with the mayor, City Council, and health advocates to ban the sale of flavored tobacco within 500 feet of schools, making it more difficult for Chicago children to start smoking. We will continue to gather and analyze data to identify high-priority health issues, which communities need the most help, and where our resources should be directed to have the greatest impact.

How did CDPH’s efforts during the Ebola scare change the way your organization works with Chicago-area hospitals?

CDPH has continued to build on the relationships we established with Chicago hospitals during the Ebola response. This year, CDPH is partnering with the Illinois Public Health Institute, several other local health departments and nearly 20 hospitals in Cook County to coordinate regional community health needs assessments (CHNA), which are required of tax-exempt hospitals by the ACA. CDPH is also partnering with health and disabilities advocates, the Sprague Foundation, and more than 20 hospitals in Chicago to coordinate interventions to address high-priority health issues identified by the hospitals’ prior CHNA. We [CDPH and hospitals] anticipate ongoing and improved coordination of community assessments and interventions as a result of these new partnerships.

You have been deeply involved with Healthy Chicago 2.0. Can you tell us about this program?

Healthy Chicago 2.0 continues the efforts of Mayor Emanuel’s Healthy Chicago initiative announced in 2011. This new program will serve as the City’s health agenda for the next four years, and full details will be released in October. We’ll present our strategies, identify funds to support the initiatives, engage public health partners to implement the strategies and then, evaluate our strategies and interventions. We will be focusing on 10 different priority areas including: access to health care and social support; chronic disease; community development (economic and housing); data and research; education equity; maternal, child and adolescent health; behavioral health systems; partnerships and community engagement; protecting the public’s health; and violence prevention and community safety. Our goal is simply to improve the health of residents in Chicago, focusing our resources on those communities and populations that need the most help.

How do you connect with Chicago physicians?  How is CDPH a resource for them?

CDPH has numerous mechanisms for communicating with Chicago physicians. Hundreds of Chicago-area physicians receive emergency and routine disease updates, clinical recommendations, infection control and disease reporting guidance through Chicago’s Health Alert Network. In addition, CDPH partners with state chapters of professional organizations including the Chicago Medical Society, Illinois State Medical Society, Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians to disseminate public health resources including educational opportunities, updated clinical guidance, and messages to use when communicating with patients. If physicians are interested in registering for the Chicago Health Alert Network, they can register at www.chicagohan.org.

Healthy Chicago

On August 16, 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled the Healthy Chicago public health agenda with the Chicago Department of Public Health. Healthy Chicago identifies 16 health outcome targets and 12 key priority areas and over 200 supporting strategies including:

•   Tobacco Use

•   Obesity Prevention

•   HIV Prevention

•   Adolescent Health

•   Cancer Disparities

•   Heart Disease and Stroke

•   Access to Care

•   Healthy Mothers and Babies

•   Communicable Disease Control & Prevention

•   Healthy Homes

•   Violence Prevention

•    Public Health Infrastructure

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