Dr. Rohan Radhakrishna Connects Local Californian Health to Global Health

December 18, 2023

Rohan Radhakrishna, MD, MPH seemed almost destined for a career in global health as he reflects on his career trajectory. “I come from a very global family,” he says. “Throughout my life I‘ve had a global upbringing with different cultures and languages and travel and that’s always interested me in the global condition of humans.” Having grown up in Clinton, IL, a small farm town of around 6,000 people, as the only kid of color in his class, he would have contrasting experiences when he would visit his relatives in urban India in the summer. “I saw a whole other level of diversity,” he says. “People looked like me for the first time but within that was tremendous geographic, linguistic, and socio-demographic diversity, including seeing crushing poverty, the caste-system, and its impact on the vital conditions affecting health. So, I think that really influenced me.” That spark of curiosity and care for other people catalyzed a lifelong journey that would be focused on global health and would come back full circle to the United States, specifically California where he is currently serving as the Chief Equity Officer and Deputy Director of The Office of Health Equity at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

Dr. Radhakrishna knew he wanted to support building healthy communities from early on. “I spent a lot of my twenties in other countries doing research learning from impacted communities about the root causes of community health,” he says. He knew that community health and becoming fluent in Spanish would be essential to serving diverse communities in the United States. He lived abroad in rural Chile in college and then spent three years as a Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador working with the Ministry of Health’s Indigenous Health Bureau on disparity reduction regarding nutrition, chronic disease, and maternal-child health. Later, Dr. Radhakrishna worked in Uganda as a UC-Berkeley Human Rights Center Fellow and in India as a Rotary Ambassador Scholar focused on rural inequities of chronic disease. “I spent the most amount of time in those regions really learning from marginalized communities about community-driven solutions, community power and decision making, to be able to define and improve health on their terms,” he says.

During his time in Ecuador and Chile, Dr. Radhakrishna links what he learned from the community to his work today. “I had the experience of learning from community health workers (promotores), going on the radio to give health talks [in Spanish] and learning about different forms of health communication, whether it was art or theater to get across important public health messages” he says. He transferred what he learned during his time abroad to communicating with Californians during the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that spoke directly to them through more than a hundred TV, radio, and social media engagements. Univision and Telemundo reporters jokingly called him “California’s Spanish speaking Sanjay Gupta.” In addition to taking challenging FOX news interviews, Dr. Radhakrishna spoke on Radio Bilingue to reach rural Latino Californians to encourage vaccination. To marry health communications and art, his department collaborated with Los Angeles cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, who was the cultural consultant for Pixar’s Coco. The partnership placed a 78 foot bilingual mural “Boost La Familia” in a Los Angeles neighborhood with high COVID case rates and low vaccination rates and got global coverage on CNN Español. These are examples that show how global health is everywhere.

Government and health officials attended the presentation of the "Boost La Familia" mural. Image credit: Jorge MacÍas.

Before working for the State of California, Dr. Radhakrishna earned his master’s in public health from UC Berkeley while also pursuing his medical degree at UC San Francisco leading him to a decade serving safety-net clinics as a family doctor and as a public health professional for Contra Costa County. He loves serving as a family doctor, his Richmond/San Pablo multilingual multicultural patient population was a microcosm of the globe, but the reach he has working on policy on behalf of all Californians is unmatched. “​​As a family doctor, I can talk one-on-one for 15 minutes to my panel of 2,000 patients,” he says. “As a deputy health officer, I can design messages and programs for a county of a million people like Contra Costa County. But to really reach folks that are harder to reach using different forms of media was something that I learned from the global context and applied it here in California.”

Now he gets to carry his vision out by leading CDPH’s Office of Health Equity (OHE). “This is a groundbreaking office that was created a decade ago to lead the health equity work for state government to build on the tremendous legacy of work from local movements, but really bake it into state government,” says Dr. Radhakrishna. His top five priorities for the office include: advancing racial equity in government; climate action, particularly through an equity and justice lens (learn more in Part 1 and Part 2 of these webinars); behavioral health and tackling the mental health crisis; supporting an equitable recovery coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic; and supporting and uplifting housing services in the state.

As the opening keynote speaker for UC Global Health Day 2024 at UCLA, Dr. Radhakrishna will talk about the work he and his colleagues are doing at the OHE that intersects with the theme Creating Health Equity Through Policy and Advocacy. “No matter where we are in our training or professional journey, from intern to student to researcher, to health professional to professor, to administrator we have to dedicate a part of our budget, our brains, and our hearts to the upstream policy systems and environment change that's required to change the conditions to level the playing field for health equity,” he says. “And simultaneously, all of us have to work at multiple levels to undo institutional harm.”

As a government official for the State of California, he especially wants to call attention to how global health is a part of the work he and his colleagues do every day. Dr. Radhakrishna thinks often of a statement from then-Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger in a 2009 UCGHI report: “The health of people around the globe is the health of California. With the number of travelers through our state and the number of Californians who immigrated here from the far-flung countries of the world, the work done to improve global health has a very real impact here every day.” Dr. Radhakrishna believes the statement gets at our interconnectedness. “The work done to improve global health has a very real impact here every day,” he says. “Fast forward a decade plus [since Schwartzenegger’s comment] and we have more migration, more globalization, more interconnectedness, that the pandemic made us realize, and so that quote, even rings more true about California's interconnectedness. We have the opportunity to lead when it comes to global health.”

Dr. Radhakrishna believes global health professionals in California can lead through courageous leadership. Specifically, he believes in what Monica Sharma called in her book Radical Transformational Leadership as a means for social change. “Sharma found that universal human values were really the core of getting in touch with what drives you and really elevates us as humans, no matter what issue we're working on,” he says. “It’s about being bold, to speak your values that are so universal, that even your worst enemy can't help but agree with you if you're focused on dignity and compassion.”

Don’t miss Dr. Rohan Radhakrishna’s keynote address by registering for the UC Global Health Day 2024 event dedicated to the theme of Creating Health Equity Through Policy and Advocacy at UCLA on March 7, 2024. He will cover a wide range of topics including the political determinants of health, trust, artificial intelligence, narrative, and hope.