(TNS) — New Orleans native and former city health commissioner Dr. Karen DeSalvo has been hired as Google Health's first chief health officer.
DeSalvo was New Orleans’ health commissioner from 2011 to 2014 before serving as the national coordinator for health information technology and assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration. Prior to working for the city, she was a vice dean at Tulane University Medical School.
She became known for helping to bring stability back to a health care system broken by Hurricane Katrina.
"After Katrina, she was one of the people that was instrumental in shifting to more outpatient care, setting up community-based clinics throughout the city," said Dr. Lee Hamm, a former colleague and current dean of the Tulane School of Medicine.
DeSalvo was pivotal in getting Medicaid waivers from the federal government to fund that community care, said Hamm, and she helped the medical school develop a focus on social determinants of health — a defining tenet of DeSalvo's career.
At Google Health, it's expected that DeSalvo will work with recent hires Dr. David Feinberg, former CEO of Geisinger Health, and Dr. Robert Califf, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.
The hires are more evidence that Google hopes to increase its influence in the $3 trillion health care industry.
A Google representative declined to comment on exactly what DeSalvo will undertake in her new role, but said she would start later this year.
Industry experts said she would likely continue to use her public health expertise in combination with her understanding of artificial intelligence.
"Google Health is about using technology and AI to advance medicine, and I'm sure she’s going to play a significant role in that," said Dr. Eric Topol, a digital medicine expert who directs the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego.
"This is about medical data and informatics, and she’s one of the leading lights in that field," said Topol.
DeSalvo is currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School. She is a board member of Verily, the life sciences arm of Google's parent company Alphabet.
Verily develops tools to acquire and analyze health data. Its best-known research is perhaps Project Baseline, a research study that aims to use data from 10,000 participants, collected via sensors and medical tests, to figure out how diseases like cancer develop long before they are typically detected.
Of all the tech companies rapidly pursuing the health care sector, Google is at the forefront, Topol said. "Google has published the most of all the tech companies on medical advances in AI," he said.
For DeSalvo, who earned a master's degree in public health and her medical degree from Tulane and also holds a master’s in clinical epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health, it is a natural progression of a career rooted in the logistics of caring for vulnerable populations.
Her colleagues at the city Health Department remember her connecting the dots between social determinants of health and health outcomes.
"It wasn’t just how do we get our citizens to understand, it was about how we get City Hall to understand — the department of housing, the employment opportunity department — that their work is not in a silo and it affects health," said Charlotte Parent, who took over for DeSalvo when she left to serve in the Obama administration in 2014.
DeSalvo, she said, was one of the first officials to connect seemingly unrelated issues like violence to public health in New Orleans.
"She brought voice to that in our community," said Parent, who now is a vice president of business development at University Medical Center in New Orleans.
Former colleagues said the path from creating new health systems after Katrina to Silicon Valley executive is more logical than it might appear.
"She understands complexities for average, normal people," said Parent. "This is where she would hope to take all the lessons she learned — how to rebuild, how to bring social determinants to the forefront — and tie that to health care that we give and access."
The hire reflects a broader trend of tech companies investing in making health care more patient-centered.
"Part of Google’s and many of the tech industries' approach to health care should make it in some ways more democratic," said Hamm.
One example: making health data available to patients and easily connecting patients to care.
"There are any number of ways that technology integration can potentially make health care more efficient and free up human and other resources to be able to deliver compassionate care more economically," he said.
©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.