Guyanese Dr Denise Johnson nominated to serve as Pennsylvania’s Physician General

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…credits success to rigorous education and passion for service

US-based Guyanese Dr Denise Johnson

By Lakhram Bhagirat

Throughout the world, Guyanese are making their mark and cementing their seats at the table. One of those Guyanese who has been bringing her passion in the execution of her duties is United States-based Dr Denise Audrey Johnson.

Dr Johnson was recently nominated by Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf to serve as the state’s Physician General – a feat she never aspired to.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, Dr Johnson shared her journey with this publication.

She was born to Darell Allen of the Pomeroon and Gwendoline Ingrid London of Friendship Village on the East Coast of Demerara. Her mother gave birth to her at the Linden Hospital Complex where she spent the first two years of her life.

At the age of two, Dr Johnson moved to the United States and began living in the Washington, DC area. She started her schooling there and would subsequently move back to Guyana where she completed her primary education at the Linden Foundation School.

After sitting the then Common Entrance Examination, she gained passes to attend the Bishops’ High School in Georgetown. She attended that institution for one school year and at the end of her first year, she moved back to the United States where she completed her high school education.

In 1983, she enrolled at the Boston University in Massachusetts where she read for a Bachelor of Arts in Biology with a minor in French. There she also did some studies in Chemistry and graduated in 1987.

“I knew that I wanted to go to medical school but I wanted to do a little bit more research so during the summers I did some research. I explored a little bit and I began working in a research lab at Georgetown. Then I started medical school where the tuition was free,” she said.

Dr Denise Johnson and her husband

Johnson then enrolled at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, District of Columbia, where she obtained her Doctor of Medicine in 1992.

“When I was in medical school, I did come back to Guyana to do some training during my medical school years. I was at the (Georgetown) Public Hospital. I worked in the Malaria Clinic and I fully got the chance to learn about malaria and recognise malaria under the microscope and taking care of patients,” she recounted.

When she completed her studies at Georgetown University, Johnson knew she wanted to get into the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She immediately began her residency at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The programme lasted for four years.

Dr Johnson then began working with the Meadville OB/GYN Associates in Meadville, Pennsylvania where she worked for 13 years. She then moved to the Meadville Medical Center where she was appointed the Chief Medical Officer in 2008 and remained in that post until she was given the nod for Physician General earlier this month.

“I wanted to do complex surgeries and help my patients. I have been the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) at the Meadville Medical Center for over 12 years now… Being in administration gave me the opportunity to influence policy to impact the delivery of healthcare not only for my patients but also the patients in the hospital. That is has been a big boost for me. I miss the one on one with my patients now being in administration,” she said.

She is Board Certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology by the American Board of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives. She serves on the Governor’s Commission for Women.

Dr Johnson has been involved in various community and regional groups focusing on diversity and inclusion and the needs of women and is the current Board Chair of the Meadville Area Free Clinic. She is past chair of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

The offer to become Pennsylvania’s Physician General came part and parcel through her work done with the Governor’s office. She received the call informing her of the opening and then expressed her interest in the position.

As Physician General, Johnson’s role will be to advise the Governor as well as the Secretary of Health on health policy in Pennsylvania. Created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1996, the Physician General position also participates in the decision-making process on policies on all medical and public health-related issues; reviews professional standards and practices in medicine and public health; consults with recognised experts on medical and public health matters; coordinates educational, informational and other programmes for the promotion of wellness, public health and related medical issues; and consults with experts in Pennsylvania and other states regarding medical research, innovation and development.

“Moving on to the position of Physician General, I have the opportunity to be more involved in the delivery of healthcare at the administrative level and I am joining a team of exceptional people in the secretariat. My experience in administration will put me in an advantageous position to deliver on the improvement of healthcare services in the state in the face of all of these challenges we are facing.

“I didn’t necessarily aspire to become Physician General nor do I believe it fell my way because I did a lot of initiatives with the Governor’s office. We do cancer screening and I have been on the Governor’s Women’s Commission and worked a lot with the Governor’s office. So, I have done a lot of work in the healthcare aspect and I think that work really put me there,” she said.

Dr Johnson carries with her to her new post, a different perspective. The perspective of the rural health system because she worked in the rural setting for her entire career. She remains in constant contact with community health workers in an effort to bring that viewpoint to the office of the Physician General.

Her work starts now as she is currently in the transitional phase. Her work as acting Physician General of the State of Pennsylvania officially begins on March 29 which will be followed by her Senate confirmation subsequently.

When asked about how her Guyanese upbringing aided in the execution of her duties, this is what she had to say: “When I first left Guyana I was very young so going back and building friendships and relationships was really good. I learned about the country and culture. Really getting to know more about Guyana and the feeling of being Guyanese was great.

I really was interested in the healthcare in Guyana. I was back last year for my father’s funeral and I got the chance to visit the public hospital again in a different capacity and I got a look into its operations. I have been exploring the healthcare system in Guyana to see what contributions I can make. I left Guyana to go back at the end of First Form.

The education system in the United States is a little bit different. I think my education in Guyana was really rigorous and I felt when I came over here and joined the school system I was really prepared and it gave me the advantage. I have this natural passion that has helped me through this all.”