Where There's a Disparity There's a Way

Kerry Paige Nesseler '78 leads U.S. Office of Global Health

By Maura Sullivan Hill, USF News Posted Mon, 03/05/2018 - 15:44

More women die during pregnancy and the first year after delivery in the U.S. than in most other developed nations, a startling statistic that keeps nursing alumna and Rear Admiral Kerry Paige Nesseler ’78 up at night. 

Luckily, as one of the top health officials in the U.S. government, Nesseler is in a position to do something about it. She heads the U.S. Office of Global Health (OGH) in the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services. This summer, Nesseler is bringing together more than 120 experts from the World Health Organization and countries such as Brazil, Finland, India, and the U.S. to share their expertise and best practices about how to reduce maternal mortality in the U.S. and globally. 

“The U.S. has a poorer maternal mortality rate today than in 1990. It’s unacceptably high, especially among minority populations,” says Nesseler, a member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC), one of the country’s seven uniformed service branches along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

As OGH director, Nesseler promotes the exchange of health and medical expertise not just in the U.S. but around the world, in search of solutions that will strengthen health care systems and increase health care access.

Emphasize justice

Her focus on public health began at USF, where she earned a certificate in public health nursing along with her bachelor of science in nursing degree. It was USF’s emphasis on social justice that prepared her for the work she does today to fight health disparities, she says.

“Health disparities generally result from inequality in education, job opportunities, and health coverage,” says Nesseler. “USF was ahead of its time in integrating these social determinants of health and social justice into the nursing curriculum. It has provided the foundation for a lifetime of service and giving for me.”

Battle illness

This isn’t the first time that Nesseler has led the charge to address troubling health inequalities. She helped develop and implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s breast and cervical cancer screening program in the 1990s, a first-of-its-kind program that has provided screenings for more than two million uninsured women. Nesseler was also the first woman and nurse to head the HRSA's Bureau of Health Professions (now the Bureau of Health Workforce), which provides educational opportunities for students training to become primary health care physicians, nurses, and dentists who practice in underserved areas.

She has served in the PHSCC for 31 years, including a four-year term as chief nurse officer from 2009-2013. “We carry no guns and our battles are illness and disease,” she says.

On a typical day, Nesseler could work with others in the Department of Health and Human Services, the United Nations, or the World Health Organization, to strategize on how best to confront a range of public health issues at home and abroad, from providing better primary care in rural areas to how to tackle the obesity epidemic.

“Each day is different,” she says. “I want to engage my colleagues to broaden their outlook and program development ideas by looking to other countries’ best practices to advance our domestic health programs.”

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