In November 2022, the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) selected LaQuandra S. Nesbitt, MD, MPH, to serve as senior associate dean for population health sciences and health equity and professor of medicine, and executive director of the school’s new Center for Population Health Sciences and Health Equity. Nesbitt was also installed as the inaugural Bicentennial Endowed Professor of Medicine and Health Sciences.
After an extensive career as an expert in population health and wellness with major state and local health care organizations, Nesbitt, a board-certified family physician, brings her wealth of experience to GW’s academic medical enterprise to address the region’s health inequities.
Most recently, Nesbitt served as the director of DC Health and led the District’s COVID-19 pandemic response. As a highly sought-after expert in population health and wellness, she also has held leadership roles as the interim director of the District’s Department of Behavioral Health and with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. Throughout her career she has led multi-sector collaborations to address innovation in health care delivery and its impact on cost and vulnerable populations; the integration of public health and health care; and the impact of social policies on the public’s health.
Here, Nesbitt discusses her efforts to advance GW SMHS’ research, education, and community engagement initiatives to improve the health and well-being of patients and communities served by GW’s academic medical enterprise, with a focus on achieving health equity in Washington, D.C.
Q: What made you decide to leave DC Health and come to the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences?
NESBITT: I’ve always been a champion of bridging the gap between what happens in the clinical space and what happens in the community health and public health space, and really got to a place where I wanted to be able to focus on bridging that gap. I never stopped teaching and working with students, whether they be medical students or public health students. So, as I contemplated what was next for me, this was a great opportunity for me to marry all of my professional experiences; being able to be engaged with clinicians to do public health and population health work in practice, to work with health systems here in our academic medical enterprise. It was really the perfect situation for me to do with this phase of my career.
Q: What’s your vision for the Center for Population Health Sciences and Health Equity?
NESBITT: I’m really inspired by the direction and the vision that Dean Bass has here. We’re adding to the body of knowledge about what works well to keep people healthy. Our vision is to do that through a population health lens, such that everyone can achieve their optimal health, regardless of their race, their gender, where they live in our society, their economic status, their education, or their physical ability. We want to be the type of institution that is people-centric and gives everyone the opportunity to get the best health care and have the best health outcomes.
One thing I want to stress is that this not a project. This is institutionalized. This is now part of our foundational infrastructure. Any modern health system that’s growing its network, whether it be an academic health system or a community health system, is thinking about population health and building population health infrastructure into its capacity.
For me, this is us putting a stake in the ground and saying, “We’re going to take ownership for keeping our population healthy, and we’re going to do it through an equity lens.” We’re not going to have differential outcomes for our patients, from Foggy Bottom to the Cedar Hill neighborhood. This is the future of how we’re going to do our work.
Q: What is your early agenda for achieving that vision?
NESBITT: I think of the work in three big buckets. One is our clinical public health curriculum, which has been around since 2014. It’s been very heavily focused on teaching our medical students about clinical public health. They have a core curriculum around patients, populations, and systems. They have hands-on experiences built around our HIV, obesity, and asthma summits, and fourth-year medical students have the flexibility to explore topics consistent with their future specialties.
Now we’re expanding to offer our physician assistant students and medical residents and fellows more exposure in public health and population health practice. We’re thinking of that as the second generation of our clinical public health and population health programs.
Our second bucket of work is the Population Health Management Division. That’s where we will be doing our applied clinical research to answer very fundamental questions about our academic medical enterprise. We see ourselves as a high-quality organization providing excellent clinical care and designing, developing, and implementing community health programs and initiatives. We’re looking at our data, across a number of demographic variables — age, gender, physical ability — to ensure we aren’t creating differential outcomes based on access. Is it difficult for someone who has a physical or intellectual disability to get access to our services? Do we create barriers for people who have public insurance such as Medicaid and Medicare versus someone who has commercial insurance? We’re going to make sure that we have the data infrastructure that allows us to answer those questions.
The last bucket is about building the strategic partnerships to help us develop a bidirectional relationship with our community. We all have something to contribute to improving our collective health. We have to embrace that shared responsibility — that bidirectional partnership between doctors and allied health care professionals, researchers, patients, and the community — in order to actively move the needle on health outcomes and build healthier communities. That’s going to be the strength of our strategic partnerships.
Our academic medical enterprise is expanding. We’re opening a new clinical site at Cedar Hill Regional Medical Center, and we have an executive steering committee that’s helping to guide those clinical, academic, and research programs that will be offered at that location. We’re doing that in partnership with the community. They are helping us through that process, making sure we don’t wait until the doors open, to ask “Is this what you want?”