Mt. Airy physician takes over as top city doc after forced resignation

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 6/15/21

When Mt. Airy resident Cheryl Bettigole, MD, took over last month as acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner, she stepped into a pair of big shoes. Ones that seem to fit her just fine.

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Mt. Airy physician takes over as top city doc after forced resignation

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When Mt. Airy resident Cheryl Bettigole, MD, took over last month as acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner, she stepped into a pair of big shoes. Ones that seem to fit her just fine. Bettigole took over the position after the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, former Commissioner Tom Farley. After five years in the position. Farley stepped down in mid-May at the request of the mayor after admitting he’d mishandled the remains of MOVE bombing victims.  Farley’s admission has launched an investigation into the Medical Examiner’s office policies.

For the last six years, Bettigole, 55, served as director of the City’s Department of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, also known as Get Healthy Philly which promotes healthy eating, staying active and reducing/eliminating tobacco use. Bettigole said she’s most proud of tightening regulations for tobacco retailers, which she says contributed to a 20% decrease in density of shops that sell tobacco products. “Smoking is still the number one killer, but no one talks about it anymore.”

In her role as director of Get Healthy Philly, Bettigole said, “We are committed to treating all human beings with respect and dignity and to truly being the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. We believe deeply in our work to improve health for all residents of our city, to decrease disparities in life expectancy and health between rich and poor, every color and cultural variation and to work together with all communities in our city to make it a truly healthy place to live.”

Prior to that directorship, Dr. Bettigole spent decades working at city health clinics and federal health centers, where she witnessed the hardships faced by uninsured Philadelphians and the obstacles the health care system creates for people who don’t speak English. These experiences turned her into an advocate for universal access to health care.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Bettigole was inspired by her father, who worked as a doctor at the county hospital. After receiving her master’s at the University of Chicago in anthropology, she decided to pursue medicine.  In 1993, Bettigole moved to Philly to be with her husband, Rabbi Adam Zeff, and to get her medical degree at Jefferson University. Following her residency, Bettigole worked at two of Philly’s health centers — one at 3rd and Girard, another in the Northeast. The die was cast. In addition to being a family physician, Bettigole chose a career in public health.

Dr. Bettigole is a board-certified family physician and has previously served as the Chief Medical Officer of Complete Care Health Network, a community/migrant health center in South Jersey, and as a family physician and Clinical Director with Philadelphia’s City Health Centers, where she saw patients for more than 12 years. She is also a Past-President of the National Physicians Alliance.

Bettigole moved to Mt. Airy in 1999 with her husband, now the Rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre, and their three sons. Empty nesters now, the only pitter-patter of little feet comes from their yellow Lab puppy.

In her new role, Dr. Bettigole is ready to tackle Philadelphia’s biggest public health issues. “Gun violence is one of the most serious problems we are facing,” she said, “but unfortunately, we are preempted by permit-to-purchase laws in Harrisburg. There is good data showing that stronger gun laws result in a decrease in gun violence.

“But when we set about to lower car fatalities, we didn’t just require seatbelts and airbags. We also re-engineered roads, installed median strips and lowered speed limits. When we look at gun violence, we have to consider the totality of the problem and think about the environment, the actor and the gun itself.”

When it comes to raising the City’s Covid vaccination rate to 70%, Bettigole said, “To date, 66% of adults have received one shot, and 50% have received two shots.”

Since Bettigole is the “acting Commissioner,” a search is underway for a permanent replacement for Farley. According to a May 14 article in the Inquirer, “Whoever takes the job next will have an important role: mending a damaged relationship between Philadelphia and its residents at a time when trust in public health is critical for rounding a corner in the pandemic.”

For more information: @cbettigole or 215-686-5200.

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