Meet Sarah Moyer, MD, MPH Director, Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness

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Fast Facts

Hometown: Northbrook, IL

Family: Husband, Jed Moyer, pediatric orthopedic physician with Norton Healthcare; children: twins James, and Landon (7), Teddy (5) and Rosie (2).

Outside of work, you will find me: Spending time with my family at one of Louisville’s fantastic parks, walking around our neighborhood or cuddled up on the couch together watching movies.

Favorite vacation spot: I enjoy exploring new places, so I can’t choose one favorite!

Last good book you read: “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes” by Melinda Wenner Moyer

Education – I earned a Doctor of Medicine from the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Completed my Family Medicine Residency at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and earned a Master’s in Public Health from Dartmouth. Undergraduate degree from Colorado College

Other affiliations: Associate Professor, University of Louisville, School of Public Health and Information Sciences

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Medical News: Congratulations for being named Communicator of the Year by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America! What does this award mean to you?

Sarah Moyer, MD: I have never been fond of having to participate in news media interviews. But being a leader of a city’s public health department during a global pandemic sure gave me lots of opportunities and practice. It means a lot to me that people who communicate for a living – public relations professionals – recognized the intense efforts we put into sharing accurate, fact-based information to our community. I am truly humbled by the award. I feel like I have still got a long way to go to become a prolific communicator, but this award really gave me the encouragement to keep working towards that goal.

MN: Why did you become a doctor?

SM: I love solving complex problems. Initially I was a physics major – but then I realized I wanted to see much quicker results – see the impact of my work. And I wanted to help others, so I switched to medicine. As a family physician, I have treated patients from newborns to seniors. Now, as public health director, I see the whole city – the entire population –as my patient. I want every person and every community to be healthy and thrive.

MN: Why did you choose public health as a specialty?

SM: As physicians, we are often unaware of the daily struggles preventing patients from adhering to our best laid treatment plans. An experience with a patient suffering with diabetes made me acutely aware of this.

My patient’s blood glucose levels would be under control at one visit and horribly out of control at the next. For months we adjusted medications and discussed the importance of adhering to a regimen of healthy eating and physical activity. After several months of yo-yoing glucose levels, we finally got to the root of the problem.

Her early and mid-month glucose levels were in range because that is when she got paid and could afford to buy healthy food. When her money ran tight toward the end of the month, she was forced to rely on neighbors and food pantries for food, often eating processed foods high in sugar, causing her levels to rise precipitously.

We know that social determinants – your income, the neighborhood in which you live, your race, your education level – are powerful predictors of how healthy you will be. Only when we understand these outside factors, can we address the obstacles that stand in the way of better health. In the case of my patient, connecting her with a community health worker who helped her connect to reliable resources to free up her finances for food made the difference in her ability to gain control of her glucose levels.

The solutions to many health issues lie not just in better access to clinical care, but in better social policy. In fact, research indicates that the greatest impacts on health are such socio-economic factors as food security, housing and education, and that the next greatest health impacts will come from changing the social context so that the healthy choice becomes an individual’s easy choice.

MN: What is the biggest misconception about your field?

SM: Decades ago, Public Health Departments provided healthcare to people, but we have transitioned clinical services to community partners like our amazing Federally Qualified Health Centers. Today we only fill in clinical service gaps, such as treatment of TB. Modern public health is about health equity—working to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to thrive through partnerships and policy work. Much of our work is in forging community partnerships and collaborations to tackle big population health issues as well as creating data and reports to help inform policy and systems change.

MN: What’s the best advice you ever received? Who gave it to you? 

SM: My favorite quote is from one on my professors at Dartmouth. “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results that it produces”. Residents in some of Louisville’s East End zip codes can expect to live 12 years longer than residents in some of Louisville’s West End zip codes. Our system was perfectly designed to achieve this outcome. Policies like redlining and decisions about zoning, transportation and infrastructure created a situation where some communities have good schools, public parks, lots of options for fresh food and safety while other communities have disproportionate burdens of polluting industries, food deserts and violence. Encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise are not going to change the outcomes if there are scarce places to get healthy foods or you’re afraid to get out and walk or go to the park if your streets and parks aren’t well lit and crime is high in your neighborhood. Designing a more equitable system is the only way to achieve equitable results.

MN: What was the biggest lesson learned during the COVID-19 pandemic?

SM: We already knew before the pandemic that certain residents of our community faced greater burdens of existing diseases, didn’t have a choice of working remotely or taking paid time off, faced racism in a variety of ways and may not trust the government’s advice. To help them we prioritized health equity – making sure testing and later vaccinations were embedded in those communities, providing essential needs like groceries and cleaning supplies to people who had to quarantine, providing housing if people couldn’t safely isolate from others at home, and using trusted community influencers and messengers to share accurate information.                                                                      The pandemic has highlighted many inequities in our community and across the country. It hurt working women hard, especially working women in essential jobs, and showed how important schools and childcare are.

MN: Who are your heroes in healthcare?

SM: My employees and other public health directors and public health employees around the country. Public health has been underfunded for years. So, when a global pandemic hit, we faced huge challenges. We simply didn’t have enough employees to manage a novel disease and global pandemic. But public health employees in Louisville and across the country rose to the challenge. Public health directors have delivered facts and recommendations that have not been popular with some in our community. Some faced threats to their own personal safety and some simply quit. I admire the unwavering determination of public health workers who have made their communities better. And over the next few years, my leadership team and I will focus on restoring our employees who suffered burnout and help rebuild staff morale and resilience.

MN: You lead a team of 275 employees at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. What do you want others to know about your team?

SM: We want you, and every other person in Louisville, to have a healthy Louisville where everyone and every community thrives. Our team includes physicians, nurses, scientists, researchers, epidemiologists, policy experts, social workers, experts in food safety and sanitation of facilities, health educators and experts at disease prevention. Everything we do is based on data, science and medicine.

MN: Can you provide an update on initiatives at the Center for Health Equity?

SM: The Center for Health Equity is our population health division of our health department. They have three main teams working on 1.) Policy 2.) Data and Performance Management 3.) Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement. Last year, our Health Impact Assessment on the Childcare Assistance Program helped to inform our legislators who expanded reimbursement by $2 per child per day and increased eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. We are working on our next Health Equity Report and expect to release it in early 2022.

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