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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Robert Goldstein discusses time at Tufts, Mass. public health priorities as he takes DPH reins

Robert Goldstein is pictured.

Kate Walsh, Massachusetts secretary of health and human services, appointed triple-Jumbo Robert Goldstein (LA’05, M’12, GBS’12) as the state’s commissioner of public health on April 4. Goldstein’s time working with the Sharewood Clinic as an undergraduate and medical student shaped his commitment to helping underserved communities access medical care, he told the Daily a week into his tenure.

While Goldstein knew from the start that he wanted to be a physician and was involved in the pre-medical society on campus, it was his time working at the Sharewood Clinic that introduced him to the power of public health. Project Sharewood has been providing free health care services to residents of Boston and Malden since 1997 and is staffed entirely by volunteer physicians, medical students and undergraduate students. When Goldstein started volunteering, Massachusetts did not have universal health care, and the clinic provided services to refugees, immigrants and people without health insurance.

“Sharewood was one of the greatest opportunities because as an undergraduate I could sit with patients for a long time and listen,” Goldstein said. “What was very clear to me is that those that I wanted to care for were those that were most marginalized in our community, faced the biggest barriers and had the greatest struggles in accessing care. For me in the beginning, and still, a lot of that care revolved around those living with HIV and at risk for HIV. It started me on a career path towards infectious diseases and HIV management — that work is public health.”

Goldstein continued working with the clinic during medical school, during which time he was a proponent of HIV and STI testing services. After graduating from medical school with an M.D. and a doctorate in 2012, Goldstein went on to complete his residency and fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. He served as chief resident and later became faculty in infectious disease at the hospital.

When he was working at MGH, Goldstein realized that the transgender community was at greatest risk for HIV. He helped found the hospital’s Transgender Health Program in 2018 and served as its medical director.

“I realized if I really wanted to have an impact on HIV and the epidemic, I had to train myself to provide gender-affirming care and to welcome folks into clinic so that they could access prevention services and treatment services,” he said. “Really what I was doing was lifting up the work of so many others — trans, nonbinary folks, people who had family members who are trans and nonbinary and people who are really committed and engaged with the community.”

Marjory Bravard (M’10), who was friends with Goldstein during medical school and worked at MGH at the same time, recalls Goldstein championing a bed policy for transgender patients.

“Mass General has shared rooms — a good 70–80% of the rooms are shared rooms — and so there became a concern where [staff] were not sure … what to do with transgender folks. And it was leading to not only delays, but uncomfortable questions for patients,” she said. “We went through a formal process of coming up with the policy that Robbie championed. Now, the patient’s preferred pronouns are pretty visible in the medical record, and there’s a clear bed policy that the patient gets a bed [of] their preferred choice.”

Goldstein said that today, the political landscape around trans healthcare is worse than it was when he was with the program. He encourages everyone in public health to lift up the trans community.

“We have a role to … educate the community to know that trans care is lifesaving care, gender-affirming care is lifesaving care.”

Goldstein ran for Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional District in 2020, but lost to incumbent Stephen Lynch in the primary. That same year, he received a call from his boss at the time, Rochelle Walensky, who asked him to join her team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For two years, Goldstein worked in public health policy at the national level.

“That work allowed me to go and visit states and cities and counties and understand local public health in a way that I didn’t before,” he said. “Through that process, it inspired me to want to come back home and to do work … to improve the health of people that were right around me.”

When the commissioner position opened up at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Goldstein jumped at it. Now, as Goldstein embarks on the new role, he hopes to ensure that Massachusetts remains a leader in access to reproductive care. He is also focused on maintaining access to health care as the state and country end their COVID-19 emergencies and using the lessons from the past three years to invest in public health infrastructure for the future.

Dave Munson (M’09), a physician with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program’s Street Team, worked with Goldstein at the Sharewood Clinic and remembers him as a “damn good doctor.”

“I think Robbie has a dynamic personality. He is really passionate about underserved populations and marginalized populations, those communities, and I think that was clear, even back then in terms of the passion and the commitment that he brought to the work,” Munson said. “He has this natural leadership quality about him where he is able to relate to a lot of different types of people.”

Despite his new role leading the Department of Public Health, Goldstein has not forgotten his peers at Tufts who are also working to create change.

“We joke often that all of us have decided to use our Tufts degrees to do good, but not necessarily to make money. … We’re all so proud of that,” he said. “The same is true for my Tufts Medical School classmates, … people who have made a tremendous impact on public health and health care. And that makes me really proud to say that I’m part of that cohort and I am friends with those people.”

Bravard said that Goldstein is one of the most generous people she has ever met. She remembers Goldstein and his husband letting her stay at their place once when she was sick, and frequently letting others stay over during residency.

“Robbie has always been very much one of the most dedicated clinicians I’ve ever met. He just goes above and beyond for everyone,” Bravard said. “He was always the one staying late and making sure that everyone was getting the absolute best care they possibly could.”

Goldstein is proud to be a Jumbo, and said that he hopes current Tufts students continue to listen to the community and incorporate equity into all their work.

“Especially for students who are coming through right now,” Goldstein said, “I would challenge them to think back and to not think about incremental change, but to think about dramatic, wholesale change that really does benefit the most amount of people.”