Francisco Garcia, MD, MPH: A Catalyst for Change

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

By Jane Erikson

As Director and Chief Medical Officer of the Pima County Health Department, Francisco Garcia, MD, MPH, is responsible for safeguarding the health of more than 1 million people.

It sounds a bit daunting. But Garcia, a 1992 graduate of the UA College of Medicine, has been focused on the health of populations – particularly minorities and the underserved – since his second year of medical school.

It was in 1988 that two Arizona Cancer Center physicians and researchers - Drs. Scott Lippman and David Alberts – sparked Garcia’s interest in cancer prevention research.

He put his second year of medical school on hold to work on a research project comparing the diets of women who develop breast cancer with those who remain cancer-free. The study was funded by grants to Cancer Center faculty from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. 

He spent the summer of 1989 doing research at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, then returned to the UA College of medicine to finish his last three years. On Match Day 1992, Garcia got exactly what he wanted: a four-year residency at the UA in obstetrics and gynecology.

After completing his residency, he returned to Johns Hopkins where he was granted a research fellowship in women’s reproductive health. While there, he took advantage of the faculty tuition discount and earned a master’s in public health, focusing on health policy and management.

In 1999 Garcia returned to the UA, where he held a number of leadership roles including director of the gynecology division of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and director of the UA Hispanic Center of Excellence, the UA Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Arizona Cancer Center’s Cancer Disparities Institute.

Since becoming director of the health department in January 2013, Garcia has gradually stepped down from his roles at the UA, but he continues as the Distinguished Outreach Professor of Public Health.

As county health director, Garcia oversees a staff of 350 whose responsibilities range from animal care and control, restaurant and swimming pool inspections, TB and HIV testing, immunizations, family planning and other public health concerns. Earlier this year, they dealt with an outbreak of pertussis in an eastside school district with low immunization rates.

“We have a very large and very, very broad mandate,” Garcia says. Garcia and his staff, and a host of stakeholders – hospitals, social service agencies, and other organizations concerned about the health of county residents – have translated the mandate into a program called Healthy Pima.

“With Healthy Pima, we’ve identified four areas that we are putting our energy into: access to health care, healthy lifestyles, health literacy and health equity,” Garcia explains.

“These are the things that our partners, our neighbors throughout the county, have said are important. We know that we don’t have the resources to do all the things that need to be done in these areas, so our focus is on being a catalyst, to stimulate ideas and partnerships.”

This spring, the health department teamed up with a number of community partners – local hospitals, Chicanos Por La Causa, El Rio Community Health Center, the UA Rural Health Center, and others – to help improve access as we try to address the needs of the county’s nearly 200,000 uninsured residents.

The coalition has enrolled thousands of previously uninsured families and individuals, Garcia says, either in Arizona’s recently expanded AHCCCS program for those who live at or near poverty level, or in one of the private insurance plans available through the ACA Marketplace. “We’re kind of proud of that,” Garcia says.

Garcia’s involvement in public health extends well beyond Pima County. Last year alone he was appointed to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the Institute of Medicine’s roundtable on health equity and health disparities, and the World Health Organization’s cervical cancer control and sexually transmitted disease working groups.

Garcia’s personal life centers around his wife, Amy Schneider, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and their two boys: Diego, 8, and Marco, 4. “Every morning when I wake up, I’m so thankful I have them,” he says.

Garcia, who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, also is grateful for the inspiration he received from his mother, Yolanda Garcia, who recently retired after decades of working as a promotora – a community health worker and outreach worker in Nogales and Tucson. Much of her service was with the St. Elizabeth of Hungary clinic, and the UA’s Mobile Health Program.

Like her son, she has been devoted to serving the underserved.

Photo by Dean Knuth, Pima County Communications Office