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YSM alum Mandy Cohen takes the helm at the CDC

Yale Medicine Magazine, Autumn 2023 (Issue 171) Obesity Special Report
by Jenny Blair, MD '04


IN JULY, MANDY KRAUTHAMER COHEN, MD ’05, MPH, became the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her appointment begins a new era for the embattled federal agency, which has lost public trust in recent years. Those who know Cohen well say she will be superb in the position—one that, in many ways, she’s been preparing for long before medical school.

“I think she was an inspired choice,” said Rahul Rajkumar, MD ’06, JD ’06, a classmate of Cohen’s. “One of the things that makes her unique and distinctive is her ability to use science, but also navigate complex political situations. She’ll do a great job restoring confidence in the organization and giving it a morale boost.”

Howard Forman, MD, MBA, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, had similar words of praise. “She’s a very mission-driven person,” said Forman, who was a faculty advisor of Cohen’s. “It was her mission to practice medicine and primary care, to improve the health of populations, and work within governments and outside of governments. And she has done that par excellence.

A journey toward health policy

Cohen grew up in Long Island, New York; her mother was a nurse practitioner whose patients often stopped and thanked her at stores and restaurants. Cohen attended Cornell University, majoring in policy analysis and management, and worked with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on health affairs while still an undergraduate.

By the time she arrived at Yale School of Medicine in 2000, she had firm plans.

“A health policy career was her stated goal from week one of medical school,” said Jillian Catalanotti, MD ’05, a longtime close friend of Cohen’s who is an internist and professor of medicine and of health policy and management at George Washington University.

A Yale-sponsored opportunity may have strengthened Cohen’s resolve. In 2001, Cohen joined other medical students on a summer trip to South Africa, where they met with HIV/AIDS patients and health leaders there.

When Cohen returned, she was “really energized,” Catalanotti recalled. “I think that experience shaped her and made her feel continually excited about health policy.

During medical school, Cohen took a year at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health to earn a master’s degree. She returned to Boston for her internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Her first post-residency job was with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., where she served as deputy director of comprehensive women’s health services. Along with the current Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, MD ’03, MBA ’03, and Rajkumar, Cohen was among the co-founders of Doctors for Obama, which would later become Doctors for America, to push for health care reform. In 2013, she joined the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), rising to become the agency’s chief operating officer and chief of staff.

Winning cheers, trust

In 2017, Cohen was appointed secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. There, she was instrumental in building Republican support for Medicaid expansion and for addressing the social determinants of health, among other bipartisan successes.

When COVID hit, she managed to steer an effective state public health response, in part by elevating transparency, accountability, and public communication.

North Carolinians of many stripes grew to trust her, naming her Tar Heel of the Year for 2020. One musician even wrote and posted online a song in her honor.

“People really did love her,” said Rajkumar, who was Blue Cross North Carolina’s senior vice president and chief medical officer during the pandemic’s early months. (Now based in Bethesda, Maryland, he is founder and chief executive officer of Accompany Health, an in-home medical services provider.) “They came to see her as the voice and face of reassurance during a really tough time. I think that was generally true across the political spectrum.”

Catalanotti recalled joining Cohen in May 2021 at the Durham Bulls’ first post-lockdown game. Wearing a mask, a Bulls T-shirt, and sneakers, Cohen threw the first pitch.

“Everyone cheered,” Catalanotti said. “And, oh, my goodness, the number of people who actually stopped Mandy, both on the street in Durham and within that stadium to say, ‘Dr. Cohen, I just wanted to say thank you so much for all that you’re doing to keep us safe.’”

Virginia Grace Cohen, MD ’04 (no relation), who is an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine, began a close friendship with Cohen in medical school. Like Catalanotti, she lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area. During the pandemic, she was particularly impressed with how North Carolina handled school openings and closings. “From my perspective as a pediatrician, the state managed it in a very reasonable, rational, but not unsafe way,” she said.

Mandy Cohen’s accomplishments in North Carolina may be all the more impressive given that, with a Democratic governor and a Republican-dominated legislature, it’s a purple state. But under her leadership, North Carolina navigated the pandemic effectively and without significant disunity on the topic of public health.

“North Carolina outperformed much of the country [in its COVID response] by almost any measure,” Forman said.

In December 2021, Cohen left her state health job to become chief executive officer of Aledade Care Solutions, a company that seeks to help primary care practices improve patient outcomes in a cost-effective way. That private-sector position burnished a career in high-level leadership in the nonprofit sector and in state and federal government, giving Cohen the broad experiences, accomplishments, and contacts that caught President Joe Biden’s eye.

Rajkumar, who also has a longstanding interest in public policy, said he learns from Cohen in every conversation they have. “She’s just someone whose career and path I’ve admired,” he said. “We’re now many, many years out of medical school, and it’s really something special to watch one of your classmates grow into an exceptional leader. Mandy’s the best that there is.”