Howard Koh found his calling in public health

A deep sense of calling and purpose has guided Howard Koh through a career spanning medicine, public health policy, and academia.

“I feel passionately that everyone has a calling and we must work hard to discover what it is,” said Koh, a 1977 graduate of the Yale School of Medicine, in a profile in the spring 2020 issue of Yale Medicine Magazine. “I am so fortunate to have discovered mine.”

Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School, said his parents taught him to “live a life that made a difference.” He began following that advice by becoming a physician, then moved on to public health and policymaking. He has served as commissioner of public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and as assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, among other roles.

Seeing many of his cancer patients die too young steered Koh toward a focus on preventing disease. “What anguished me the most—and still does now—is how many of them succumbed to preventable causes,” he said.

He added, “We must define health broadly to encompass emotional well-being, spiritual well-being, the importance of community and the role of relationships. These are the things that people think about when they wake up in the morning. Trying to improve health for all allow us to find meaning in the journey. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Read the Yale Medicine Magazine article: A Life Committed to Public Service