Q&A: Dell Med’s DeSalvo Talks Social Health Startups, Data Ownership

Karen DeSalvo has experience working in the public sector, but she’s hardly what you’d call a government bureaucrat.

DeSalvo, who is trained as a physician, served as the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology from 2014 to 2016 under President Barack Obama. During some of the time she headed the ONC, as the office is known, DeSalvo was also Assistant U.S. Secretary for Health, a position within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Before that, she was vice dean for community affairs and health policy at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

Earlier this month, DeSalvo joined the faculty at the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, where she’ll serve as a professor in the Division of Primary Care and Value-Based Health. For DeSalvo, joining Dell Med marks a return to her roots—she grew up in Austin, TX—and to working in academia.

DeSalvo recently spoke with Xconomy by phone about the upside of working at a still-new institution (Dell Med enrolled its first class of students in 2016), why your ZIP code may be a better predictor of health than your genetic code, how artificial intelligence and other new technologies are influencing the education of doctors, the impact Amazon and CVS might have on healthcare, and more. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Xconomy: What do you bring to Dell Med and what are you hoping to accomplish as part of the school’s faculty?

Karen DeSalvo: Part of the mission of the school is to improve health in the community. Developing a workforce, doing research, and creating a healthcare infrastructure that can support community health is a really exciting opportunity.

I bring my experience in not only medical education but also in public health practice, pubic health research, and then health IT. All those tools will be necessary to really bring great health to the community.

X: As medical schools go, Dell Med is still very young. Do leaders at the school feel they have latitude to create programs that focus on pressing issues in health and medicine today (for example, Dell Med has an entire department dedicated to population health)?

KD: The leadership has this idea to really create health in partnership with the community. It [requires] some rethinking about the traditional infrastructure. We’re going to iterate and learn over time.

The idea of having population health as a visible and active focus of the work matters a lot because populations are who we’re there to serve. But it’s also a different way of thinking. It’s about learning to attend to the person in front of you, and to do that in the context of the rest of the community in which they live and learn and have relationships. It’s not just what happens in the doctor’s office.

X: Has the school intentionally included more of a technology focus in its curriculum?

KD: The education that doctors need to not only be in [medical] practice now, but certainly in the years to come, is different than the way I was trained.

We have to teach skill sets that have to do with digital health and technology more broadly. At Dell, it’s helping physicians in training feel more comfortable with looking at data.

Increasingly, patients are collecting their own information about themselves … things like wearables that count steps, or people who have chronic disease like heart failure and have scales at home and are weighing themselves into the record. Doctors need skills about how to find signal from that noise, how to make good use of that data on behalf of their patients and populations.

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