Dr. Leana Wen

Modern Healthcare - - PHYSICIANS - — Steven Ross John­son

Dr. Leana Wen’s abil­ity to han­dle crises was first tested just a few months into her ten­ure as Bal­ti­more’s health com­mis­sioner. In April 2015, the city of more than 620,000 res­i­dents was rocked by ri­ots sparked by the death of Fred­die Gray, a young black man who died while in po­lice cus­tody.

When loot­ing caused 13 phar­ma­cies to close, Wen’s depart­ment helped trans­port el­derly res­i­dents to open lo­ca­tions.

Wen, a for­mer emer­gency physi­cian at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, over­saw the triage of in­juries dur­ing the ri­ots. She also set up men­tal health cri­sis lines that pro­vided coun­sel­ing 24 hours a day. The depart­ment also de­ployed teams of men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als into af­fected ar­eas.

Those moves set Wen’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the more for­ward­think­ing mu­nic­i­pal health com­mis­sion­ers in the coun­try. Her agency has a $130 mil­lion an­nual bud­get and em­ploys 1,000 peo­ple.

“In lo­cal pub­lic health, there are press­ing is­sues all the time that come up that are ur­gent and time-sen­si­tive and have life-and­death con­se­quences,” Wen said. “But in or­der for us to re­ally move the nee­dle on these long-term health dis­par­i­ties, we also have to con­tinue to drive in­no­va­tion and be will­ing to do things dif­fer­ently.”

Wen, 34, has ex­pe­ri­enced sev­eral cri­sis sit­u­a­tions. She was a res­i­dent in the emer­gency depart­ment at Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal on April 15, 2013, when the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing killed three peo­ple and in­jured more than 20. Dozens of pa­tients were taken to Wen’s hospi­tal.

Over the past sev­eral years, as the coun­try ex­pe­ri­enced a dra­matic rise in the num­ber of peo­ple dy­ing from opi­oid over­doses, Wen has taken steps to curb the epi­demic’s im­pact on Bal­ti­more. In 2015, she was among the first city com­mis­sion­ers to is­sue a blan­ket pre­scrip­tion for the opi­oid-over­dose re­ver­sal med­i­ca­tion nalox­one and im­ple­ment wide­spread train­ing on how to use it. The pro­gram is cred­ited with sav­ing more than 800 lives. “Ev­ery­thing that we do, I (en­vi­sion) that pa­tient we’re try­ing to help,” Wen said. “When we are try­ing to ad­dress over­doses, I see the pa­tients who have died in my care from over­dose— the pa­tients we have tried to re­sus­ci­tate but couldn’t.”

Wen re­cently lob­bied the state Leg­is­la­ture for a bill that makes nalox­one avail­able over the counter; the bill be­came law.

In 2016, Wen’s ef­forts were rec­og­nized by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who asked Wen to join him on a panel dis­cus­sion about ad­dic­tion as a pub­lic health cri­sis.

“She’s fear­less, but just be­ing fear­less and march­ing in is just sort of the ticket to ad­mis­sion,” said Dr. Wil­liam Peck, for­mer dean of the Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity School of Medicine in St. Louis where Wen serves as di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Health Pol­icy.

“The ques­tion is can you make a dif­fer­ence, and so far she has been mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.”

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