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Harvard Med School Instructor to Serve as Commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Robert H. Goldstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, will assume the role of Massachusetts Department of Public Health commissioner later this month.
Robert H. Goldstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, will assume the role of Massachusetts Department of Public Health commissioner later this month. By Jonathan G. Yuan
By Dylan H. Phan and Ammy M. Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Medical School instructor Robert H. Goldstein will serve as the next commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the DPH announced in a press release Monday.

Goldstein, who will assume the role on April 18, currently works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a senior policy adviser and at Massachusetts General Hospital as an infectious disease physician.

A graduate of Tufts University, Goldstein said he became passionate about public health after helping HIV patients during his residency at MGH, which led him to pursue a fellowship in the MGH/Brigham and Women’s Hospital infectious disease program.

“You can’t be an HIV doctor and not be interested in public health — they go hand in hand,” Goldstein said. “We need a robust public health system to take care of people who are at risk for HIV and living with HIV because they’re oftentimes the most vulnerable in our societies.”

“My work in HIV medicine, and my work with those most affected by HIV — in particular, the LGBTQ community — meant that I had to be interested in, integrated into, and a part of the public health system,” Goldstein added.

In the press release announcing the appointment, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen E. Walsh said she will work with Goldstein to address critical issues for Massachusetts residents, highlighting the importance of “health equity, inclusion, and reducing barriers to care for the most vulnerable communities in our state.”

“It was a no-brainer to say yes to this, to be able to work with such an amazing team and get to do really interesting and impactful work,” Goldstein said. “What I’m excited to do is to work alongside the people that have been at the department for many years and also to bring in new people who will continue that commitment and further that work to really reduce the structural barriers that are in place.”

Walsh said Goldstein’s experience in both clinical and policy settings “positions him well to lead the public health response in Massachusetts.”

Margret R. Cooke, the current commissioner, will shift to an advisory role for seven months following the start of Goldstein’s appointment to “support a smooth transition at DPH,” according to the release.

Asked about specific plans for addressing structural barriers to medical care accessibility, Goldstein said he wanted to start by learning from current DPH officials in order to see “what is working well and what is not working well.”

Still, Goldstein discussed the plans he intends to pursue once he assumes this position, including those related to potential negative impacts to the accessibility of healthcare following Massachusetts’ plan to end the public health emergency for Covid-19 on May 11.

Goldstein said ending the Covid-19 public health emergency could negatively affect those seeking treatment for substance use disorder, people seeking gender-affirming care, or people who live in rural parts of Massachusetts.

“As a department of public health, we need to be at the table with others including folks at MassHealth and the Department of Mental Health,” Goldstein said. “What do we do for the people who still need those substance use treatment programs and those providers, but can’t access them because they don't have a car to drive to where they were getting care virtually?”

As a policy advisor at the CDC, Goldstein was closely involved in the federal government’s response to Covid-19 as well as the monkeypox outbreak in 2022, which was successfully controlled.

Goldstein said an “unspoken” public health challenge he wanted to address was rebuilding “the trust that people have in public health.”

“Over the past three to four years, trust in public health has decreased,” Goldstein said. “That’s a huge impact in our ability to get people vaccinated, in our ability to educate people about common sense gun violence prevention strategies, in the opportunities we have to connect people to reproductive care and access services to decrease maternal mortality.”

In light of the public health workforce deficit, Goldstein said his educational work at HMS has been focused on “exciting people about public health, getting people interested in public health as a career, and making them realize the power and the impact of public health.”

“Even before Covid started, we were down by tens of thousands of public health workers across the country,” Goldstein said. “Now, at the end of the public health emergency, we are in not much of a better place.”

Goldstein emphasized the importance of getting undergraduates to explore public health careers.

“Public health is really exciting,” Goldstein said. “We need to start rebuilding that workforce, and no better way to start than with really eager and excited and really smart people who are in college and universities right now.”

—Staff writer Dylan H. Phan can be reached at dylan.phan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @dylanhieuphan.

—Staff writer Ammy M. Yuan can be reached at ammy.yuan@thecrimson.com.

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