Marc Elrich's nominee for county health officer, Dr. Kisha Davis, speaks to the press during a Zoom briefing on Oct. 26.

Davis, the county’s incoming health officer, told the County Council on Tuesday that her roots go way back — far enough that some of her ancestors were enslaved people.

Rich Madaleno, who sat beside Davis as she was fielding questions from County Council members, said that even though there was a long wait to find a permanent health officer following Travis Gayles’ resignation in September 2021 — the selection of Davis was worth the wait. 

Davis is a graduate from Quince Orchard High School and a married mother of three children. She worked on a documentary titled “Finding Fellowship,” which focused on 50 years of integration in Maryland, including the communities near the school. 

She will be paid a $200,000 annual salary and begins work in mid-December. Madaleno texted Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that state officials decided on the final salary since the position is a joint state-county position. He added that Gayles, who earned $229,000 annually when he resigned, was both division chief of public health services and the county’s health officer. 

Those roles will be split up, with Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, serving as the former.

Bethesda Beat spoke with Davis, a former family physician in Gaithersburg, about why she applied for the health officer job, her responsibilities and other aspects of the role. Here are her responses, slightly edited for clarity. 

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What made you want to apply for this job, given the current atmosphere around public health officers?

Dr. Kisha Davis: I have been a member of this community my whole life. [My family] goes back to the Civil War. And so, one, it was kind of service and an opportunity to give back.

I’ll tell you what really triggered it for me. In my current role as [vice president for health equity at Aledale], I was [recently] in Arkansas … we have practices all over the country. And in Arkansas, I was working on hypertension disparities. And we had the community health centers, medical school, philanthropy networks, and groups, and my company. And we were all trying to map out hypertension disparity and what we could do. 

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I was on the plane ride home and I was thinking, why am I doing this in Arkansas, when I should be doing this right here at home? And a fateful conversation followed not long after that with [County Council President?] Gabe [Albornoz], who said, maybe you should think about this. And it really got me going about, maybe this is the opportunity to give back. 

What are you focused on in the first weeks and months of the job?  

One, it’s about building connections with the community. Dr. Bridgers has been great holding the wheels together, but he’s been doing the job of two people.  

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It’s also looking at, where are we now — I’m hesitant to say post-COVID — but in the rebuilding phase after COVID. Where are the pockets of health disparities?

We hear a lot about health inequities and disparities in the county. What does that mean to you, and how do you plan to address them?

I think when you get down to the root of it, some of it comes to trust, or lack thereof, some communities have of the health care community. And I think some of the ways that you start to tackle that is bringing health care to them — whether that be community health workers, whether that be where clinics are located, but really building and collaborating with communities. 

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I think in terms of understanding where disparities exist within certain communities in the county, I think we have to study that a little bit more, see where they are. We have some data from the health of the county report in 2018, so tackling that, digging down, and getting to the why and where those disparities exist.

The county does provide some mobile health services and similar types of programs. How would you build on that?

We have the ability to do a lot of hotspotting [focusing on specific geographic areas of disease and its spread]]Say [for example] this weekend, we had a lot of hospital admissions. Where are those coming from?

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There’s been some studies in Camden, New Jersey where they really focused in on hotspotting, and found that health issues were coming from one apartment complex. And so, have we looked in our county to say: even beyond a ZIP code that’s too big, can you get to a couple of blocks? And then can you get to those communities? Like, is it a senior housing facility that might need additional intervention? So really trying to get more targeted in our approach, to really go into communities where they are.

During your comments to the council, you said how family physicians need to be more involved in helping create police policy. Can you talk more about that?

I’m active with the American Academy of Family Physicians, we wrote a paper on community policing. And that really came from our membership of family physicians wanting the academy to weigh in on this issue — because we as family physicians see this manifested in our patients. We have police who are our patients, and we also see the effects of violence and over policing in our communities, and the long-term effects that has on the mental and physical health of our patients. 

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It’s recognizing that we have something to say about it, that the policing standards affect our patients and to an extent, affects us too. 

This seems similar to an emergency room physician who said that addressing gun violence and gun control was “in his lane,” despite gun rights supporters telling him to “stay in his lane.” Is it like that?

I remember one of my residency directors used to wear a pin saying gun safety advocacy and we pushed to be able to ask parents about guns. It’s important as a physician — and not because I believe one way or the other about whether you should have guns — but it’s important for me, who’s accountable for the health of this child, to help educate the parents on storing guns safely. 

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As family physicians, a kid getting shot is a public health issue. And so, it’s really coming at it from that standpoint.  

You also told the council about “cultural humility” when it comes to practicing public health. What does that mean?

A lot of folks will talk about cultural competence, which is knowing everything about that culture. You can’t know everything about everybody, and cultural humility is when you’re having that interaction with a culture, going in with an openness, a mindset of willing to learn, not paternalistic and assuming that you are going to solve the problems of that community. It’s really going in with a willingness to partner and understand, instead of trying to take over. 

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As a county native, how do you think that’s going to help you as you start work?

I think it’s accountability to the community, understanding how it works and having kids in the school system. I think that hopefully helps folks see that I’m a real person too, just like them. And the rules and things that we institute affect me too.