Dr. Kendra McDow, school system medical officer for the School District of Philadelphia, will address students in the Class of 2023 at the College of Public Health graduation ceremony on May 11. McDow oversees student health at non-charter schools in the nation’s eighth largest school system, nearly 200,000 students in 217 schools. Previously, she was chief medical officer for the City of Baltimore, where she was operations lead for the health department’s COVID-19 response and was an Epidemic Intelligence Service fellow and medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A board-certified pediatrician, McDow simultaneously earned her medical degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a master of public health degree from Columbia University.
“I've always loved general pediatrics and child development. But I also wanted to have impact on a larger scale. That’s where my transition to public health came in,” McDow says. “As a physician, you have that one-on-one impact on a patient’s life. But when you’re looking at societal pressures that may be manmade and historical, such as education, housing circumstances, and food insecurity, you start thinking; how can I make a change for all of my patients?”
McDow says Temple provided her first exposure to a career path in health. After her freshman year at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., she was accepted into a Minority Access to Research Careers program hosted by Temple.
“I spent my summers on Temple’s campus. I did research in the School of Pharmacy and shadowed physicians at the hospital,” she says. She received her BA in biology and religion from Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia. She worked as a pediatric resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore before becoming a pediatrician and eventually medical director at a federally qualified health center serving families. Her return to Philadelphia to work for the health of schoolchildren unites her career passions and, she says, “feels like a full circle moment.”
In the School District, McDow serves as an expert on child health, working in tandem with other departments to ensure that those overseeing factors such as physical education classes, school environments, and academics “have a common language about how central all of these health components are,” she says. “We know that students cannot have optimal learning if they're coming to school sick, or they have a medical condition that's undiagnosed, or it's not managed properly.”
McDow hopes to encourage CPH graduates to stay creative and ambitious in the field.
“It’s a noble profession,” she says. “They are going into it to be of service to society, the country, the world. There are so many people we're seeing left behind. There’s an urgency to public health, especially now, since the pandemic. We see the widening wealth gap, we see disparities by race, by ethnicity, by economics, access to services, health outcomes and life expectancy.”
She also wants to offer herself to graduates as an example that "your career can be beyond what you see," she says. "I think about my career. It's beyond what I could have ever imagined when I decided to become a physician when I was in 10th grade. Don’t be afraid to take what you have, take your knowledge base, take your passions, and use that for the good.”