MY WORK: The Commish

“We have to be sure we make decisions based on evidence and best practices, with input from the communities, of course,” says Dr. Julie Morita, MD ’90, ’86 UI, commissioner, Chicago Dept. of Public Health. “But we’re not going to please everyone all the time.” (Photo by Kenn Rhem)
Dr. Julie Morita on leading the City of Chicago’s public health efforts

For the past two years, I’ve been the public health commissioner for the City of Chicago. The department has about 600 employees and dozens of programs.

I’m a native of Chicago, born and raised. As a child, I was fortunate that my parents encouraged me to strive high, which I think is atypical for second-generation Japanese Americans in the U.S. Not all my peers’ parents encouraged their daughters to pursue rigorous careers.

I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an undergrad and UIC for medical school. After pediatric training at the University of Minnesota and four years in pediatric practice in Arizona, I moved to Atlanta with my husband, who also is a doctor, to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I was an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the CDC. We had a training program in which we learned about outbreak investigations and data analysis. We focused on treating populations rather than individuals. I liked working at the CDC a lot, but I wanted to return to Chicago.

In 1999, I joined the Chicago Dept. of Public Health as medical director of its immunization program. Our program was very robust. We focused on children and adults with the greatest needs—those who were uninsured or enrolled in Medicaid. We increased our efforts to engage the community and work with health-care providers. It’s not just a matter of reaching parents and the public—it’s also making sure that health-care providers know the best practices. For example, more than 20 vaccines are administered before age 2, and new vaccines are coming out all the time. Vaccination hesitancy is an important issue. When the HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine was licensed, some parents were reluctant to have their kids vaccinated. HPV is transmitted sexually. This vaccine helps prevent cervical and anal cancers. We worked with health-care providers to make sure they were comfortable recommending it, which dramatically increased coverage. It’s a life-saving vaccine.

As Chicago’s public health commissioner, my focus is broader than disease and prevention. We released Healthy Chicago 2.0 in 2016. It’s a citywide plan that addresses health equity, which means reaching the underserved. We engaged more than 100 stakeholders—hospitals, health-care providers, the business sector, the philanthropic community, faith-based networks, advocacy groups—and created a plan that identifies strategies we will use over the next four years to achieve health equity—increasing access to health care and human services, treating and preventing chronic diseases, educating people about healthy choices. One critical element of this plan is addressing root causes. We’re focusing on some things people might consider nontraditional, but that definitely have an impact on health—housing, transportation, education.

We are actively engaging the philanthropic community and business sector to understand what their roles can be. For businesses to be successful, they need a thriving, healthy community. Our goal is to have all sectors working together in a coordinated way to ensure that we’re doing things efficiently and not stepping on each other’s toes.

We have to be sure that we make decisions based on evidence and best practices, with input from the communities, of course. But we’re not going to please everyone all the time. We know what our priorities are. We’ll listen to what people have to say, but we also have to listen to the data.

At every level and at almost every moment, I have felt that the work I do—and that the department does—has an impact. Throughout my career in public health, I’ve felt like I’ve made a difference. I am forever learning—that’s what I love about this job.

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