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Karen DeSalvo’s True North: The Supportive Infrastructure of Community

There are many different types of leaders.  Those that charm and reward.  Those that bellow and threaten.  Those that are leaders in name only and those that are leaders in all but.  For those who are led, leaders often are symbols and cyphers, mirrors to our truest selves, the part of ourselves that we want to share and the parts of ourselves we want to hide.  Consider your own thoughts on leadership and being led over this past election year and remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, a leader who well understood within his own life the duality of that which we share and that which we hide.  “The government is us, “Roosevelt said. “We are the government, you and I.” 

The most effective leaders often bring to their community a sense of presence.  Everything about them, their body language, the tone and tenor of their speech, their actions exude a confidence of spirit, a command of the power of an acute sense of the possibility of the now.  They speak.  We listen.  They confront us with a call to service today towards the common good tomorrow and we respond.  For those of us in the healthcare and health IT industry, we have witnessed that kind of presence in Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the Acting Assistant Secretary and former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As part of HIMSS’s Women in HIT Initiatives, Dr. DeSalvo recently spoke with STEPS to Value host, Rod Piechowski, about the impact of policy in the healthcare and health IT industry.  They discussed the importance of standards in driving innovation as well as the opportunity that APIs offer to enhance effective data sharing.  They discussed the hope for a holistic longitudinal electronic health record and the potential insights for patient and provider alike from such a product.  But it was in Karen’s thoughts about those unforgettable days back in 2005 when the Big Easy was anything but in which you gain a greater appreciation for just how much she makes each day about honoring “importance of the supportive infrastructure of community.” 

Dr. DeSalvo describes those unforgettable days back in that late summer New Orleans heat, working with a patient battling HIV with no access to now dissolving paper medical records trying reconnect with anti-viral therapy while parts of the city were still under Katrina’s waters.  About patients and volunteers alike finding their way to the clinic, to higher ground.  To higher ground.  About how together patients and providers, locals & volunteers from miles away came together to help each other heal themselves and a community.  To be caregivers for each other in the fullest sense of what that means.  It is toward the end of the interview that you get the most acute sense of the confidently inclusive leadership of Dr. DeSalvo those caregivers witnessed.  “It’s the thing I love.  I’m always looking for ways I can keep health from being a barrier to people having the kind of opportunity they want in life.”   Our nation’s health and the health of our nation are the better because of that love.    

Keywords: 
Health It; patient care; EHR; women in health IT