Columbus well being chief has pandemic, racial disparities on her thoughts


As an undergraduate medical student, Mysheika Roberts became the health monitor of her dormitory. She posted disease prevention messages on lobby billboards and distributed helpful tips to peers.

That responsibility at the University of California at Berkeley fueled the passion for public health of a young Roberts, who always assumed she would become a doctor – just like her father.

More:Columbus Health Commissioner speaks on national television about the introduction of COVID vaccines

Almost three decades later, she’s still handing out health advice – except now it’s nearly 1 million people when Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the health commissioner for Columbus Public Health.

Wash your hands Stay six feet apart. Wear a mask. To be vaccinated.

COVID-19 has of course increased the stakes. That was evident in early March when she was in a big meeting with the governor and boldly advised him to cancel the massive Arnold Sports Festival in the early stages of the pandemic.

“You know this is in your job description and your authority, but I don’t think anyone dreams of the day they have to use it,” said Roberts.

But the global pandemic, which disproportionately affects people with color, wasn’t all she thought about. Questions of race are omnipresent.

After all, 2020 was a year that protests erupted in Columbus and across the country against police brutality against blacks. Health and government agencies declared racism a public health crisis.

More:Columbus Health Commissioner: The COVID vaccine early readiness list was a misstep.

And as a black person who cares about the health of a city where 30% of the population is black but only 5% to 10% of doctors, she feels obliged to do something about it.

“We need more healthcare providers who look like the community they live in,” said Roberts, 50, who lives downtown with her husband. “As a black woman, I feel compelled to do more than the average person to reverse this inequality.”

Modeling change

Sometimes this work takes the form of major health initiatives. Sometimes it happens to one person at a time.

Such is the case of Omonivie Agboghidi, a third-year medical student at Wright State University in Dayton who has been mentored by Roberts since 2018 Physician Diversity Scholars Program, an OhioHealth initiative connecting minority medical students at local schools with local doctors.

California-born Agboghidi said Roberts advised her on topics such as professional development, course loading, and navigating family dynamics as a busy health care provider.

Most importantly, she used a model to validate her decision to become a doctor.

“Like me, she was motivated to implement changes at the population level,” said Agboghidi. “She literally did what I imagined, but I didn’t know what it looked like.”

It helped that Roberts was a mentor who looked like Agboghidi, who is often reluctant to wear her hair naturally – all so as not to draw attention to the fact that she is usually the only black woman in the room.

“Sometimes you know when you feel like someone else,” said Agboghidi, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria and who completed her bachelor’s thesis at UC-Berkeley, just like Roberts.

She said Roberts showed her how to be authentically true to herself as a black woman and still achieve success in medicine.

And so one day earlier this month Agboghidi proudly wore a “big old curly afro” at Dayton VA Medical Center for her rotation in psychiatry after learning from Roberts, “Hey, I can be comfortable in my own skin.”

Overcome the pandemic

Growing up – first in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then in Los Angeles – Roberts always knew she wanted to be a doctor. She worked in her father’s internal medicine practice and volunteered as a candy striper in local hospitals.

Then Earvin “Magic” Johnson – the star of Roberts’ favorite basketball team, the Los Angeles Lakers – announced that he had HIV as a student in 1991.

Mysheika Roberts with basketball star Earvin

“To have a straight, black athlete who says he was HIV positive it scared the world,” said Roberts. “As an African American college woman on a college campus, it opened my eyes.”

That event, she said, led her to do a Masters of Public Health from the University of Michigan. She then attended medical school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

“As a doctor, I thought people would take me more seriously,” said Roberts. “As a black woman, I felt that I needed as many testimonials as possible to become relevant and make my voice heard.”

Dr.  Mysheika Roberts is supported by her father, Dr.  Robert LeMaile-Williams, undercover when she graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1998.

And it would help her reach her ultimate goal: run a health department. She thought this would be the best way to combine her medical and public health skills while helping most of the people.

Roberts ran a sexually transmitted disease clinic in Baltimore for three years before joining a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program that enabled her to investigate epidemics as a “disease detective”.

During that two-year appointment, she was hired to work with the Ohio Department of Health from 2004 to 2006 to tour the state dealing with outbreaks. At the age of 36, she was named medical director of Columbus Public Health in 2006. In December 2017, she took over the position of Commissioner.

Mysheika Roberts, right, with her mother Florence Williams in an undated family photo

She immediately began lowering the city’s child mortality rate, and her department adopted the county’s opiate addiction plan. Working with partners in the area, she worked to empower the city’s mental health response and reduce the stigma associated with it.

“I was very optimistic that we were going in the right direction on many of these issues,” said Roberts.

Then the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 has become her team’s # 1 priority – really the only one.

In the early days of the pandemic, she and her team set up test sites. quickly expands their contact tracking efforts and helped the city plan hospital overflow problems with a makeshift facility at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

She has had the ears of local and state government officials for almost a year. Members of the school board and even local business owners showing them what guidelines to implement and how to follow best practices to protect the community.

She is busy now Coordination of public vaccination clinics and hosting question-and-answer sessions for virtual vaccines to ensure people have accurate information.

“It was exhausting,” said Roberts, who was named Executive of the Year in the Healthcare Achievement Awards from the CEO of Columbus for 2021. “It was very stressful. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. As soon as you think you are getting something going and we have a good cadence, there is a curveball.”

And she doesn’t expect things to give way even after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.

Violence, Overdoses, Suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, food insecurity and other issues are on the rise, in part due to the pandemic, Roberts said. And through the city Creation of a center for innovation in public healthShe has been tasked with helping Columbus implement programs to combat inequalities and racism in health care.

“I want us to survive this pandemic, of course, but what will the health of our community on the other side be like?”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

Part of improving health care after the pandemic will be helping more people of color when they become doctors, Roberts said.

Agboghidi wants to be part of the solution.

While studying medicine, she said she learned that some health professionals prescribe different drugs or otherwise treat them clinically differently, depending on a patient’s race. For example, there is a long-held myth that blacks have a higher tolerance for pain.

Agboghidi said these decades-old practices could be difficult to question, especially given the pressures to be perfect and not cause problems as a minority student.

“There’s this idea of ​​Black Excellence,” said Agboghidi. “Our churches look at us, our elders look at us. When I see other black medical professionals, they look at me like, “Hey, make us proud. Be the best. ‘ There’s that weight on our shoulders. ”

A mentor like Roberts is helping to reverse that, Agboghidi said. Even at the height of the pandemic, Agboghidi said she received texts from the health commissioner checking her in and reminding her to self-sufficiency.

“I told her, ‘I don’t know how you do it,'” said Agboghidi. “Of course there are hits and misses, but when I look back on the past year … she’s kept popping up and it’s not easy.”

Roberts can confirm that the past year has not been a walk in the park – in the health world and on the streets of her community.

“It was very, very difficult for me to watch what happened in our community when our black and brown people were hurt and killed by people who were supposed to protect us,” said Roberts. “What I remind my co-workers and my friends and family is okay to acknowledge that you are not okay after seeing something like this.”

She hopes last year’s struggles will result in systemic and lasting change in Columbus – particularly when it comes to racism as a public health crisis.

“I firmly believe that one way to get out of this and reverse these differences is to do some uncomfortable things,” said Roberts. “You have to do some radical things. You can’t do the same job that we did. ”

[email protected]

@ AllisonAWard