Member Spotlight: Larry Wolk

March 09, 2017|3:46 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Larry Wolk, MD, is executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Since joining the agency, Wolk’s mission has been to simplify the health system for Colorado’s citizens and position the department as the leader in providing evidence-based health and environmental information. During his tenure, he has overseen flood recovery, a federal shutdown, and the promulgation of the nation’s first air quality rules specific to methane reduction for oil and gas operations. Wolk’s latest endeavor is addressing the myriad issues surrounding medical and retail marijuana.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

I received my masters of public health 20 years ago and took a circuitous path through what I call the “private practice of public health.” I started my own non-profit 501(c)(3) pediatric clinic, Rocky Mountain Youth Clinics (RMYC), serving publicly insured and uninsured kids. I maintained my volunteer practice as a pediatrician a half-day per week while working day jobs in managed care, inmate healthcare, and CEO of Colorado’s health information exchange. During my time there, I worked with the governor’s office quite a bit, and when this opportunity at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment opened up, the governor asked and I answered!

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

The governor’s chief of staff at the time was previously the executive director of a shelter program for youth living on the street. While at RMYC, I helped her by providing medical services to her clients. We stayed in touch over the years and worked together on several projects, including helping to build a school for a village in Tanzania. It’s a small world…

What is your morning ritual?

I wake up at 5:15 a.m., drink three cups of coffee, feed the dogs, and work out three days a week, play tennis one morning a week with friends, and have breakfast one morning a week with health cabinet colleagues. Weekends I sleep—but still I feed the dogs and drink the coffee!

What do you do to stay healthy?  

In addition to what I just mentioned, I also take vitamin D, baby aspirin, and medication for my cholesterol and blood pressure.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Any beach since I live in the mountains!

What are your favorite hobbies?  

Tennis, skiing, eating, and spending time with my four nearly grown kids.

How did your career in public health begin?

It began when I became a resident physician after medical school. I was exposed to school-based health centers, studying condom use in teens and prenatal care challenges in a public county hospital setting. These experiences led me to pursue a master’s in public health during my fellowship in adolescent medicine so I could better address population health issues.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

Most challenging is trying to stay true to the science. Many of us are political appointees and may need to keep in mind the context of who appointed us, but I believe we have an obligation to remain true to facts as well.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?  

I started three days before Colorado experienced a 100-year flood. When I took the job, I admitted I was less familiar with environmental health than public health. No better way to learn than to deal with a real-time experience. During that experience, I came to appreciate how talented, committed, and prepared our staff and local public health partners are. They demonstrated great expertise during that time of crisis.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?

As I learned in my clinical career, we don’t always have the answer. People are looking to us to give a “yes or no” answer. A qualified and transparent “maybe” is an important lesson learned, especially for emerging topics, like whether or not fracking or marijuana use pose public health threats.

How has social media helped advance public health within your state?

Social media has helped update and renovate many of our processes. Education and prevention are foundational to public health values and our mission, and there is no better way to communicate these things more broadly and effectively than social media. It can be pretty inexpensive, too!