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Dr. Karen Hacker
Allegheny County Health Department Director

On September 3, 2014, Karen Hacker, M.D., MPH, began her tenure as the new director of the Allegheny County Health Department, a role that seems well suited to her abilities to bring diverse groups together for the greater good of the community.

“I would describe myself as a coordinator and a convener,” explained Dr. Hacker. “Our resources are limited and the scope of our work is large, so we will never be able to solve problems with any one organization. My goal is to get all of the area’s organizations to work together to find ways to effectively and efficiently deal with the challenges that we face.”

Dr. Hacker was formerly the executive director of the Institute for Community Health, a community research organization within the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), where she also held the title of senior medical director for public and community health. Dr. Hacker also served as an associate professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health. She received her undergraduate degree from Yale University, her medical degree from Northwestern University and her master’s in Public Health from Boston University.

"I knew that I wanted to be a doctor from a very young age,” said Dr. Hacker, whose mother is a psychiatrist. “I wasn’t clear on what type of doctor I wanted to be until college and medical school, when I began doing volunteer work with a lot of different populations. At the time, I had no idea what ‘public health’ was, but I enjoyed working with different cross-sections of the population, especially adolescents—I felt like I could make a difference within that group.”

As a result, Dr. Hacker’s research interests have focused on adolescent risk and resiliency, child mental health, and the social determinants of immigrant health. She has led efforts to incorporate behavioral health screening into pediatric primary care and worked with communities on issues of substance abuse and overdose prevention and youth suicide. She has most recently been involved in evaluating the transformation of safety net institutions into accountable care organizations.

At the Allegheny County Health Department, Dr. Hacker will be responsible for assessing and ensuring the health of the community. “The department is responsible for the health and wellness of the entire community, which includes environmental health, such as air, water and housing issues, as well as clinical programs, including those focused on sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, immunizations and chronic diseases,” she explained. “The department also monitors the general health of the public to identify hot spots or identify and contain infectious disease outbreaks.”
One of Dr. Hacker’s first priorities in her new position is to improve the infrastructure of the health department. “It needs a lot of work; a lot of revitalization to bring it into the 21st century,” said Dr. Hacker, who has already added two deputies and a chief epidemiologist to the staff. “We also need to understand the disparities in the county—racial, economic and geographic—and focus attention on those.”

Dr. Hacker also plans to concentrate on obesity prevention and physical activity promotion, and to continue to work on air quality issues in the county. “As an outsider, I face some challenges in getting to know the environment, the players and the dynamics,” she said of her move to Pittsburgh. “I wasn’t born and raised in this area, so that creates some advantages and disadvantages. I still need to learn the lay of the land.

“There are numerous people doing lots of things, so my hope is that I can coordinate these groups so that we are all moving in the same direction,” she added. “Working together, we can move the needle; we can get some of these issues resolved.”

To learn more about the Allegheny County Health Department, visit www.achd.net or call (412) 687-ACHD.

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