The last place in the world USF College of Public Health alumna Dr. Claude Dharamraj thought she would see health disparity was in the United States.
After obtaining her medical degree from Université de Lille, in France in 1975, and starting her career as a neonatology pediatrician in New York, she was quickly proven wrong.
“As a medical student, I wanted to be a missionary. I wanted to go anywhere, except the United States because as the richest country in the world, I thought the United States must have excellent health care,” she said. “Arriving in New York, I was shocked by the disparity in health care for the rich and poor. I had always wanted to be a missionary, so I became a missionary in the richest country in the world.”
Dharamraj and her husband moved to the Florida in the early 1980s, when she took a fellowship in pediatric intensive care at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, and the disparities still remained apparent.
“At one point, I stopped to ask myself, why is it that we spend so much money on keeping one baby alive when we could save thousands of them by just doing basic prevention?” she said. “Very honestly, it looked like a third world country in certain areas.”
In 1984, Dharamraj joined the Department of Health in Pinellas County as a pediatrician, moving up to the role of assistant director in 1990 and then director in 2006. She obtained her executive public health practice MPH in 2000 from the COPH.
After three decades of public health service, she officially retired on Nov. 30.
During her time in public health, Dharamraj’s issues of concern were ensuring the health and well-being of children, stopping chronic diseases related to poor lifestyle and preventative care through health care access for all.
She worked very closely with Governor Lawton Chiles to implement the Healthy Start program in Pinellas County, serving as the head of the coalition entrusted with informing and educating health care providers of the changes that needed to happen as a result of the new law.
She took pride in visiting hospitals and speaking with health care staff to inform them that that every child and pregnant woman in the state of Florida needed to be screened for risk factors to prevent premature delivery and promote healthy pregnancy outcomes, regardless of their health care standing or insurance provider.
Dharamraj is also proud of her role in creating community partnerships and in obtaining grants to address various health issues from obesity, lead poisoning and hepatitis.
“I believe in partnership, I believe in community health,” she said. “I believe it had to be done by the people in order to be successful.”
She took every chance possible to address the health care disparities she so frequently witnessed in her public health career.
“Our budget increased almost by a third because we were successful in obtaining grants,” she said. “I had never been trained to write grants, yet I became successful at it and I would work on them at night in the evenings.”
Dharamraj plans to spend her new spare time with her children and four grandchildren, as well as catching up on her hobby of ballroom dancing. Although retirement is here, her interest in closing the health disparity gap is still clearly evident.
“We will always have some disease, but if you have a good preventative public health program or activity, people will not get sick as much,” she said.
Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health.