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  • Transforming and Advancing Health Equity:Dr. Howard Kyongju Koh
  • Kathy Ko Chin (bio) and Jeffrey Caballero (bio)

Dr. Howard K. Koh is a true hero in public health and a role model for all Americans, particularly for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AAs and NHPIs). He is a physician, scientist, professor, former Assistant Secretary for Health, former state health commissioner, public health leader, and advocate. In his various positions, Dr. Koh has demonstrated excellence in leadership and his strong dedication in transforming public health practice and advancing health equity for all populations, particularly those who are medically underserved.

Dr. Koh often refers to the fact that he is the child of Korean immigrant parents, who understands first-hand the cultural and linguistic adaptations demanded of immigrants. His personal journey includes going to Yale University for his Bachelor’s and Medical degrees, as well as establishing himself in Boston. There, he made his home and also learned, trained, and served in the fields of medicine and public health. Recognized as an expert in skin oncology and in a range of public health areas, Dr. Koh has made significant contributions to assuring the health and well-being of all Americans.

Dr. Koh is currently a Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. He is directing a new doctor of public health program (Harvard DrPH) focused on developing the public health leadership skills of graduate students.1

Leading Through Action and Strengthening Communities

Dr. Koh was the 14th Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 2009 to 2014. At HHS, Dr. Koh directed 12 core public health offices, including the Office of the Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, 10 Regional Health Offices across the nation, and 10 Presidential and Secretarial advisory committees. He implemented a wide range of interdisciplinary programs relating to health promotion, disease prevention, women’s and minority health, adolescent health, HIV/AIDS and chronic infectious diseases, and the reduction of health disparities.2 During his tenure as the ASH, Dr. Koh [End Page 1] made significant contributions by leading the development and implementation of the following four initiatives: the first HHS Agency Plan for AAs and NHPIs,3 the HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,4 the National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity.5 and the HHS Action Plan for the Prevention, Care, and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis.6

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As an internal champion for achieving health equity and addressing health disparities, Dr. Koh worked in support of many issues that communities of color and communities experiencing disparities have been advocating for. Among these, Dr. Koh’s championing of matters on AA and NHPI health has been significant. During Dr. Koh’s tenure as ASH, he requested regular meetings with AA and NHPI community leaders two to three times a year. In those substantive exchanges, issues such as language access, immigration status and Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage, prevention, behavioral health, and others were discussed. As a result, major partnerships between community leaders and various agencies within HHS were established and furthered. Dr. Koh provided access, partnership, and a well-versed familiarity to these issues, in order that HHS could address them.

A Blueprint for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health

Dr. Koh, working with key HHS staff such as Dr. Francisco S. Sy (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities), established the first HHS Plan on AA and NHPI Health in 2011 and which has served as a blueprint for the Administration ever since, revisited annually by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Those of us from the community appreciate that many of the elements of the HHS Plan for AA and NHPI Health include elements from community forums, such as the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum Health Brain Trust which dates as far back as 2007, in which Dr. Koh participated.

The HHS Plan on AA and NHPI Health was ground-breaking in...


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