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Eclectic Background Pays Off

Physician-attorney leads IPDH
By Scott Warner

Some people think I have been confused, or that a lot of things I’ve done have been unconnected,” says Nirav Shah, MD, JD. But despite his causing raised eyebrows among his friends, family and peers, Dr. Shah has pursued a “non-linear career trajectory” that has brought him to direct the complex Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), overseeing 2,000 employees.

A native Chicagoan, Dr. Shah has served as IDPH director since January 2015. That’s when a search team from Governor Bruce Rauner’s office wooed this multi-faceted physician from the law firm of Sidley Austin, where he had worked on the legal and administrative aspects of public health. Dr. Shah earned both his medical and law degrees from the University of Chicago and was yearning to work more in public service, when the governor made him the offer that he couldn’t refuse. Dr. Shah also wanted to put into practice much of what he had learned when he worked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as both epidemiologist and chief economist for the Cambodian Ministry of Health. In that role, he focused on gathering data and applying it to public health policy to manage disease outbreaks across the country. And he was deeply touched by the Cambodian people who had suffered under a 30-year civil war.

With such formidable experience, Dr. Shah finds his role as IDPH director his most stimulating to date, requiring “40 to 50 skill sets” to serve the people of Illinois. “I don’t have every skill set,” he said, “and it’s not clear that any one person has all the skill sets needed for this job.” What he prides himself on is being “the glue that holds the team together,” and in hiring people “who are strong in areas where I’m weak.” He praises “the IDPH’s world-class experts” who work in such areas as mosquito control, women’s health, and epidemiology, to name a few. “We are all keen on the IDPH’s mission, which is to promote the health of the people of Illinois through the prevention and control of disease and injury.”

Dr. Shah says he wanted to go into medicine simply to help people in need. But soon after entering medical school, he realized, ”I was the guy who was interested not in having one patient in front of me, but in helping thousands of patients who never got a chance.” He shifted from clinical medicine to population health. But he also yearned to help people through the legal system, and once he received his medical degree, he enrolled in law school, earned his JD degree, and went to work in health law.

“I think of my career as a clock face. I’ve swept a lot of my clock, getting more and more experience.” He’s now putting that experience to good use. As IDPH director, he says, “Ninety percent of my job involves public policy, analytics and economics.”

Dr. Shah is also involved with food. An avid home cook with his wife, Kara Palamountain, MBA, Dr. Shah is developing a program at IDPH to provide cooking programs for the public. ”People have poor diets, not entirely because of food deserts, but because they simply don’t know how to prepare food at home—and that would be so much healthier than eating fast food and junk food.”

Career Highlights

Nirav Shah, MD, JD, is currently a global public health lecturer at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He teaches courses on public health policy and epidemiology. Dr. Shah also sits on the board of the Women’s Global Education project. He was recently recognized as an “Emerging Leader” by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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