The Osler Medical Symposium (OMS) kicked off its first event, “Baltimore in the 21st Century: A Commissioner’s Perspective,” on Friday, March 2 in Gilman Hall. OMS is a new student-run speaker series that aims to bring high-profile guests in the field of medicine to Hopkins. The series is named after William Osler, one of the four founding physicians of the Hopkins Hospital.
The panel featured Dr. Peter Beilenson and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, both of whom served as former Baltimore health commissioners, as well as Dr. Michelle Gourdine, the former deputy secretary for public health in Maryland. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Leana Wen, the current health commissioner for Baltimore.
Wen explained that health is influenced by many factors, including housing, poverty and unemployment.
“So often, we understand health to be what happens when you are in a hospital. But actually, that’s not what determines how long someone lives or how well someone lives,” she said.
Wen recalled her interactions with a young patient who was frequently in the emergency room due to breathing problems. Although she was able to administer treatment to help him in the short term, Wen said she was unable to do anything about living conditions which contributed to those problems.
“It really made me question this narrative that exists: this pervasive narrative of choice,” she said. “What we have to recognize is that this choice is based on privilege... public health seeks to... level the playing field so that we’re giving every child, every person an opportunity to thrive.”
Wen gave three examples of work that her department has done to improve the health conditions of Baltimoreans. In order to address the opioid epidemic, Wen said that she increased the supply of Narcan in the City, which in turn resulted in over 1,600 people’s lives being saved. Another initiative, Vision for Baltimore, provides eye screenings and glasses for every child in Baltimore City Public Schools. Lastly, Wen described a bill that switched the standard drink in kid’s meals from soda to milk or water.
Beilenson described his career in medicine, specifically his tenure as commissioner. He believes there are four necessary components of a community: safe and affordable housing in non-violent neighborhoods, access to healthcare and healthy food, a strong public education system, and access to livable-wage jobs.
Beilenson also discussed his views on healthcare. He ran the non-profit insurance company, Evergreen, from 2012 to 2017. Although Beilenson stepped down from Evergreen, he says he still supports single-payer health insurance.
“There are just far too many perverse incentives to hold off our care, to delay things, to not do things in the best interest of the patient, even within a non-profit health insurance company,” he said.
Sharfstein, who succeeded Beilenson as health commissioner for Baltimore, recounted how he handled challenges, such as fighting for vaccines and making sure prescription drugs are accessible to the public.
Sharfstein became health commissioner at the end of 2015. At the beginning of 2016, Medicare began offering prescription drug benefits to patients, and Sharfstein had to figure out how to make sure that Baltimoreans were able to obtain necessary medication.
“One of the things they did to make the pharmaceutical industry happy in passing the law was they said that patients who today are getting drugs through the Medicaid program would have to switch to this new privatized program,” he said.
Ultimately, the Health Department decided to back up the pharmacies by paying for patients’ medication so that there would be no delay.
“If it’s one patient who can’t get their pharmaceuticals, it’s a clinical problem. But if it’s 28,000 people — the most vulnerable people in an entire City — it’s a public health challenge,” he said.
Gourdine was the previous health commissioner for Baltimore County. She said that one of the biggest challenges she faced was convincing people that the county’s problems did not stem from Baltimore City. Gourdine also touched upon the disparity in health conditions based on race.
“Health inequities, we know, stem not necessarily from biological and genetic faults which, may surprise you, actually were a part of the literature that came out in the ‘50s and maybe even early ‘60s,” she said.
Health inequity also manifests itself in other ways, such as segregation, Gourdine explained. For example, Gourdine said that redlining, the practice of denying homeownership to individuals based on their racial or ethnic background, has had lasting effects on access to health, education and wealth for black residents.
“We no longer have redlining. We no longer have ordinances that prohibit integration of communities. But look how segregated we still are,” she said.
Students like sophomore Katherine Fu, enjoyed listening to the commissioners’ views.
“[I] took Dr. Beilenson’s Public Health Primer class freshman fall, and when I heard who the speakers were, like Dr. Leana Wen, I really wanted to come, because these were really important issues,” Fu said. “There was a really good breadth of topics. I learned a lot of new things about what public health involves and why it should be studied.”
Senior Rushabh Doshi, one of the organizers of OMS, said that the organization plans to host a symposium every spring. Last year, Doshi worked to establish the Hippocrates Medical Review (HMR), a student-run publication. HMR won an Idea Lab grant, which provides $20,000 for winning student projects, and Doshi said that some of those funds have been allocated to finance OMS events this spring. He is currently in the process of requesting funds for next year.
Doshi said that he was inspired to start OMS after attending other student-run speaker series.
“There is no medical equivalent for MSE or FAS, which is kind of odd given that Johns Hopkins is the mecca of all things medicine,” Doshi said. “We have two wonderful symposiums, FAS and MSE, but I think with the addition of having the Osler Medical Symposium, the school can really bring prominent leaders of the world in every topic.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Radha Bhatnagar and Kee Harish, directors of the Hopkins Public Health Student Forum (PHSF), explained that they also seek to bring distinguished speakers to Hopkins. However, while PHSF and OMS may overlap in the speakers they bring to campus, the two still occupy different fields.
“PHSF and OMS take advantage of each other’s presence. We look forward to working with this new student organization to put together great experiences for students on the Homewood Campus,” they wrote.
Diva Parekh contributed reporting.