City to announce new health commissioner

Sharstein is pediatrician, legislative aide


As a pediatrician-in-training at Boston Medical Center in 1997, Joshua Sharfstein stood out among the other aspiring doctors by making house calls in poor neighborhoods. What Sharfstein discovered on those in-home visits led him to co-write a report showing that deplorable housing conditions can severely harm the health of children.

The study, which Sharfstein undertook at age 28, grabbed national attention, garnered praise from the federal government's top housing official, and confirmed expectations set by an award that identified him as a potential public health leader while he was a Harvard Medical School student.

In the years since, the Mount Washington resident has followed a public health career trajectory that will place him in charge of the Baltimore's Health Department. At a City Hall ceremony this morning, Mayor Martin O'Malley will name Sharfstein, 36, as the city's new health commissioner. He replaces Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who resigned this year to run for Congress.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline yesterday aboout the selection of a new Baltimore health commissioner misspelled the name of Dr. Joshua Sharfstein.

Sharfstein "comes with a different background [than Beilenson], but he comes well poised to do as good a job, if not better," said Dr. Alfred Sommer, former dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was chairman of a search committee comprising representatives of O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Sommer said Sharfstein topped the list of nearly a dozen candidates. "He's superbly educated," Sommer said. "And he is very much devoted to Baltimore."

Sharfstein's wife, Dr. Yngvild Olsen, is medical director of outpatient substance abuse treatment services at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His mother is a pediatrician and his father, Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, is president of Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"Dinner conversations very often revolved around sticky clinical issues or health policy questions," the elder Sharfstein said.

Joshua Sharfstein will take the reins of the Health Department from acting Commissioner Francine J. Childs next month, overseeing an agency that operates with a $163.3 million budget funded mostly by federal grants. The department is charged with, among other things, managing 14 health centers, inspecting more than 10,000 food establishments and administering nearly 21,000 HIV tests a year.

"Dr. Sharfstein's wealth of expertise on a broad range of public health issues and sound understanding of public health policy will help us continue to address our public health challenges," O'Malley said in a statement.

For the past four years, Sharfstein has worked as a senior public health aide for Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat from California. He balanced his policy work with practical pediatric experience by working weekend shifts at Children's National Medical Center in Washington and Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital.

"What he brings to the position is really valuable legislative experience," said Beilenson, who was not on the search committee but fielded calls from candidates.

Sharfstein graduated from Harvard College in 1991 and then spent a year in Central America on a public health fellowship. He returned to start his medical training and graduated in 1996 from Harvard Medical School. As a student, the American Public Health Association gave him its annual award recognizing a promising public health professional under age 30.

While interning at Boston Medical Center, his work on a report called "Not Safe at Home: How America's Housing Crisis Threatens the Health of Its Children" propelled him onto the national stage.

"While he was busy trying to become a pediatrician, he saw a problem with housing, gathered the stories, reviewed the literature, and that report helped to redefine housing as a child health issue," said Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics for Boston Medical Center and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

Sharfstein said he is thrilled to get the job because of the commitment of the city's top two elected officials. O'Malley has emphasized the importance of preparing for public health crises and increasing drug treatment in the city. And Dixon has been a vocal advocate for HIV/AIDS treatment.

He said as health commissioner, he hopes to address disparities of health care delivery to the poor, especially preventable deaths from diabetes and heart disease.

"I want to make a real difference in Baltimore," Sharfstein said. "I want to be someone who is here for the long term."

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