D.C. Health Chief Focuses on Teamwork

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pierre Vigilance received his share of congratulations after being named the District's health director seven weeks ago. The good wishes came as no surprise: He would be leaving his position as Baltimore County health officer for a bigger, more visible job under a high-energy, activist mayor virtually the same age as he.

But colleagues and friends also offered somewhat joking condolences. In Washington, greater visibility triggers greater scrutiny and criticism. And, they noted, leading the D.C. health department has offered little employment security of late. Vigilance, 38, is the fifth director in the past decade.

He doesn't seem worried. Rather, he seems determined and focused on what he considers "a really good opportunity."

The opportunity includes a chance to tackle the burden of chronic disease in the city, to do things in ways "not as they've been done before" and to stabilize and advance a too-often troubled department. "I don't know if opportunities like this one come along very often," he said, before realizing the unintended irony of his words, given his predecessors' short tenures. Vigilance took over as director this month.

In Baltimore County, he improved uninsured residents' access to health care. Before that, in Baltimore, he oversaw education and outreach programs dealing with HIV-AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. He emphasized a "shared responsibility" for health.

"It's not just how much the [D.C. health] department does for residents, but with them," he said. "We talk about screening people a lot, but then the issue is: Having screened someone, you've got to educate them to wanting to do something."

He knows how programs within a public health agency, and certainly within a city, can operate as islands unto themselves. But in Baltimore city and county, he got people talking and cooperating across their usual borders. He said he intends to do the same in the District. Even before he started here, Vigilance proposed a forum with various community organizations so that they can meet him and share their concerns about the department.

"I challenge that notion that we're already doing everything we can do," he said.

Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, gives Vigilance a good chance of success.

"He was always very interested in collaborating," said Sharfstein, who had begun working with him on a regional health disparities project involving hospital, church and other local leaders. "Pierre brings a very effective communication style and a very creative way of thinking about problems. It will serve him well."

Many people in the District are counting on that.

"He has a difficult task ahead of him," said Kim Bell, executive director of the D.C. Area Health Education Center, who made some calls to Maryland after Vigilance's appointment. She said she liked what she learned about his time there, especially his interest in partnerships to tackle disparities.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company