Dr. J. Nadine Gracia uses her role to advocate for underserved communities.
Gracia is the deputy assistant director for minority health and the director of the Office of Minority Health (OMH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Based in Rockville, Md., the OMH works to improve the health of ethnic and racial minority populations.
“I serve by helping to shape and influence minority health policy, but also develop programs in conjunction with our partners to really identify ways in which we can reduce disparities in minority communities,” said Gracia, who was appointed to her new role in January.
Gracia plays a key role in President Barack Obama’s administration’s Affordable Care Act outreach to minorities and underserved communities.
“Our office is helping to support the implementation of the health care law in doing outreach and education to the minority populations to understand the law,” said Gracia.
“This is really important because many of provisions of the law address some of the key factors that have contributed to health disparities.”
Some of these factors include having access to health insurance, healthcare providers and preventative screenings.
She is leading the implementation of the HHS department’s first Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities and the National Partnership.
“It addresses how we can strengthen health care, how we can strengthen the health care workforce, how we can improve collection to better understand health disparities and how we can work to support community-based interventions,” Gracia says of the action plan.
Under her leadership, the OMH is fostering the “Healthy Baby Begins with You” program, an initiative that aims to address the issue of infant mortality in the African-American community. This focus comes at a time when infant mortality rates in the Black community are more than twice that of whites.
As an offshoot of the Healthy Baby Begins with You initiative, the OMH launched the preconception peer educator program which trains college students to become community health ambassadors who educate other youths about preconception health in an effort to bring down high infant mortality rates in the Black community.
Since the program’s inception, almost 2,000 students have been trained to be peer educators at college campuses across the country. Temple and Lincoln universities are amongst the schools currently participating in the program.
As a first generation Haitian American, Gracia gravitated to a medical career because she viewed medicine as a way to make a difference.
Gracia was a clinical instructor and general pediatrics research fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from 2006 to 2008, where she conducted research on community risk factors for violence.
Gracia said she became interested in health policy while undergoing her medical training.
“I became interested in policy and public health because I would often see my patients and their families and not only have to treat the medical condition that they were coming to me for, but also solve some of bigger social issues that they were grappling with,” she said.
She encountered patients who lacked insurance, were unable to access the medications that were being prescribed and lacked access to healthy food in their neighborhoods.
“It made me realize that I could also use my training and medical education to being an advocate at a broader level and at a policy level. I had a great interest in being able to be an advocate for the underserved and minority communities and in developing policies that would be for the betterment of those communities.”
Gracia finds her current role gratifying.
“I loved clinical practice. I loved caring for children and the family. In pediatrics you not only care for the child, you really have to address the needs of the family as well and it was very fulfilling. While I loved that individual care and interaction with my patients and their families, I see myself now as having a platform to be able to address their needs on a national scale,” she added.
From 2008 to 2009, Gracia was one of 14 White House Fellows and was assigned to HHS, where she worked in OASH and the Office of the Secretary. During the last two months of the fellowship, she was a policy advisor in the Office of the First Lady, assisting in the development of the childhood obesity initiative.
Gracia is often tapped to speak around the country about health disparities and what her agency is doing to address them.
Gracia has served as acting OMH director since November 2011.
She is the first woman to lead the OMH in 18 years. Gracia is one of the highest ranking women in federal government working on health disparities.
“I see it as an honor and a role in which I therefore mentor young doctors and emerging leaders to see that this can be a path that they can pursue,” Gracia said.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, Gracia earned a master of science in clinical epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania and a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Gracia completed pediatrics residency and served as Chief Pediatrics Resident at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She is board-certified in pediatrics and is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.