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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Research

Faculty Profile: David Baker, MD, MPH, Chief of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics

David Baker, MD, MPH

Waiting outside of his office sit more than 311 million Americans.

For David Baker, MD, MPH, investigating the way in which health services function provides an opportunity to affect an entire country, not just individual patients.

With roles at Feinberg that include chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics, deputy director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine, and principal investigator of a multimillion dollar grant that established the Center for Advancing Equity in Clinical Preventive Services, Baker has dedicated his career to examining ways to improve population health.

“In a nutshell, I examine problems in the healthcare system and try to design solutions. My goal is to not only improve the health of individual patients, but of the larger population as well,” Baker said.

Twenty years ago, as the term “health literacy” emerged, few people were examining its meaning, and its impact on health care was unknown. Today, it’s a part of the lexicon of health care and health care policy, as researchers like Baker work to explain the vital role it plays in Americans’ health.

“My research is quite pragmatic; much of it has examined how patients’ reading ability influences their healthcare and health outcomes,” Baker said. “Now we are working to identify ways to overcome the barriers posed by low health literacy and improve quality of care and outcomes.”

Q&A

How does your research advance medical knowledge?
Most of my work has focused on understanding and addressing disparities, including health literacy, language barriers, and racial and ethnic disparities. I have led studies demonstrating that patients with low health literacy have higher hospitalization rates and higher mortality. This work has led to a large number of studies examining the causal pathways between literacy and health outcomes, along with research and evaluation studies examining strategies to mitigate the negative impact of low health literacy.   

At what point in your life did you become interested in medicine?
I first became interested in medicine in high school. I always loved science, and I had some personal experiences that exposed me to medicine before I set my sights on this as a career. But where I am now is quite different than that original path. 

During college, I worked with a volunteer public health program called Amigos de las Americas. I volunteered with a vaccination team in Paraguay and a dental program in Guatemala. These experiences got me interested in public health and health care policy. During my internal medicine residency in Los Angeles, these interests resurfaced because of the tremendous problems the public health care system was facing. This led me to pursue a research career focusing on health and health care disparities.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in?
Over the last two decades I have worked closely with Mark Williams, MD, chief of hospital medicine at Northwestern,  and Ruth Parker, MD, professor of medicine at Emory University, on my health literacy research. Since coming to Northwestern, I have had the privilege of working with Michael Wolf, PhD, MPH, associate division chief for research in general internal medicine, on research examining health literacy and the association between health literacy and cognitive functioning. As director of the Center for Advancing Equity in Clinical Preventive Services, one of three centers for excellence nationally, we are working with investigators at the University of Colorado and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

What would you consider your defining characteristics outside of medicine?
My family is the center of my life. My wife, Ann, and I have three children who are the joy of my life and, simultaneously, the cause of my graying hair. I also love the outdoors and enjoy skiing, backpacking, kayaking, and cycling. My youngest son is a very talented basketball player who has finally taught me how to shoot a jump shot. So, basketball is now a very big part of my life.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
I would have to say Robert Brook, MD, ScD. He was my attending as a resident at the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA). At the time, I was very involved in efforts to avert cutbacks in healthcare proposed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Bob and I had several long discussions, and he encouraged me to do a research fellowship. A year later, he accepted me into the UCLA Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program and he served as one of my key mentors. He is really one of the great thinkers in health services research and he taught me so many things. Most importantly, he helped me learn how to ask important questions and design studies that would give policy-relevant answers.

Which honors are you most proud of and why?
In April, I will receive the Alvan R. Feinstein Award for Patient Care in the Field of Clinical Epidemiology from the American College of Physicians (ACP). This is a tremendous honor for me because it is one of ACP’s highest awards and because I knew Dr. Feinstein when I was a research fellow. He was a giant in the field, and to receive an award named in his honor is really special for me.