Clarence Lam, MD, MPH '10
Physician. Biosecurity and health policy expert. Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly. These are the many hats of Clarence Lam, MD, MPH ’10, and on June 9, he added one more: director of the Bloomberg School’s General Preventive Medicine Residency.
The Road to Public Health
As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve, Lam double-majored in biology and political science and spent two summers with AmeriCorps in Cleveland, Ohio, teaching health and safety to middle schoolers. He chose the University of Maryland for medical school for its close proximity to Washington, DC, which afforded many opportunities to study and experience public health, but it was his timely choice to take 15 months off to work as a policy analyst at the Center for Health Security that cemented his interest in public health and public policy.
Lam’s work at the Center for Health Security brought him under the aegis of the center’s director, Bloomberg School dean emeritus D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH ’60. Lam was inspired by Henderson’s phenomenal career as director of the World Health Organization’s global smallpox eradication campaign and, during the early 2000s, head of the federal Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, where he oversaw a major grant program to strengthen emergency response programs in public health departments nationwide. Once Lam fully realized the extent of Dr. Henderson’s impact, he decided to “quit dabbling” and commit to a career in public health. Henderson taught him that “we as physicians can do a lot to change a community’s health without ever putting a hand on a patient.”
As a policy analyst, Lam was tasked with evaluating government policies to prevent and contain the next biological attack and increase the resiliency of first-responders. He worked to strengthen regional coordination of hospitals and ensure that their surge capacity was large enough to handle a major emergency. The experience of seeing results from his work—improvements in both hospitals’ performance and funding from Congress—energized the young physician.
Public health preparedness, Lam learned, “strengthens the overall health infrastructure,” whether for events like the anthrax attacks of November 2001 or for emerging epidemics. The attacks, he said, made health professionals and policymakers more aware that “there’s a lot we can do upstream to prevent biological warfare, and also gave us an increased sense of urgency and higher purpose.”
Reflecting on longterm patterns in public health, Lam recognized that it has always been a challenge to persuade the public of the need for an ongoing commitment to public health, which by its nature hides the threats that it prevents. After he enrolled in the Bloomberg School’s General Preventive Medicine Residency in the fall of 2009, Lam acquired the skills in epidemiology and biostatistics that “you need on your tool belt to be able to convince policymakers to enact new laws.” He also said that his student experience convinced him that “public health and preventive medicine is a team sport—we never work in isolation. It pushed me to think more about the upstream potential for prevention and social determinants of health.”
Running for Maryland General Assembly
While he was still in medical school, Lam had interned on the staff of Congressman Henry Waxman, who was then chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Being on the Hill is great,” he remembered, and he relished the opportunity to trade grueling clinical shifts for the classic Friday afternoon “document dump,” where staffers descend on a dozen boxes full of papers and spend the weekend in a report-writing frenzy.
Lam’s Bloomberg School experience prepared him well for a career in politics, which requires the signature public health skills of advocacy, telling a story using data and statistics, and working collaboratively with a team. As an MPH student, Lam joined the staff of Maryland State Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, a fellow physician who is also an associate in Health Policy and Management. Lam quickly recognized that in state government, results can be achieved much sooner compared to the federal arena. He describes the House of Delegates in Annapolis as “a narrow lane to swim in,” where junior members have more opportunity to take on issues and are “much freer to see the entire policymaking process up front and personal.”
After doing a preventive medicine rotation at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Policy and Planning, Lam realized that working in a federal agency “meant that you were answering to someone else, and had to operate under many constraints. Elected officials ultimately call the shots, and I wanted to be able to drive the agenda more effectively.” Lam decided to make the leap himself, and Morhaim showed him the ropes of campaigning. With an impressive list of endorsements including the Baltimore Sun, Lam won election in November 2014 as a delegate representing District 12, Howard and Baltimore Counties. Lam was among three new M.D.s elected to the General Assembly, ending Morhaim’s stint as the lone physician.
Only a few months into his first term, Lam has already passed a bill that revised the antiquated state laws on HIV screening to reflect today’s much improved treatment and survival rates. Before, clinicians had to meet a host of pre- and post-test requirements that undercut the important goal of encouraging patients to get tested; under the new law, HIV testing is treated more like other routine screenings, such as those for cholesterol or blood glucose. Lam is serving on the House Environment and Transportation Committee, where he wants to bring a public health perspective and apply his deep understanding of data, science, and medicine.
“Too often, lawmakers let politics drive their decisions instead of letting science be the guide,” Lam asserted. He was the lone voice in the General Assembly to oppose transporting crude oil by train, which has increased 4,000 percent since the rise of fracking in recent years. Crude oil extracted by fracking is often more explosive, and also evaporates during transport, posing potential environmental and health risks. Lam is authoring a bill to explore the health impact of transporting crude oil in Maryland.
General Preventive Medicine Residency
Although campaigning and serving as an elected official takes considerable time and energy, Lam’s full-time job has been serving on the staff of the School’s General Preventive Medicine Residency, first as chief resident, then as assistant program director and, after long-time director Miriam Alexander’s retirement in October 2014, as interim director. As the newly appointed director, Lam will continue his efforts to expand high-quality opportunities for residents to gain experience in state agencies and the legislature in Annapolis, an arrangement he describes as having “tremendous synergy.”
That phrase aptly describes Lam himself: a jack of many trades, but above all, a master of public health.