Dr. Mitchell H. Katz has been San Francisco’s director of public health since 1998. Previously, he was director of The City’s AIDS office, and Katz is chairman of the San Francisco Health Plan — a city-run health insurer for more than 50,000 low- and middle-income San Franciscans. Katz graduated with a psychology degree from Yale University and with his medical doctorate from Harvard Medical School. He has spent almost 20 years in health care, and is an author and teacher. Katz and his son, Max, and daughter, Roxie, reside in San Francisco.
Who’s made the biggest impression on you in your life?
My high school guidance counselor. I wasn’t that good a high school student, and he motivated me — he made me see that I could do better than I was doing. He was the one who interested me in going to a top-rated college. I still see him a few times a year. He’s been involved in helping me raise my children.
What book or piece of writing has had the largest impact on you?
I was strongly influenced by the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. I think that the need to trust your first impressions is really true. There have been multiple times in my life, whether hiring someone or buying a house, that I had to convince myself that I really should hire the person even if my first impression wasn’t that. After reading the book, I’ve paid a lot more attention to my immediate impressions. Whether they might not be correct, they exist for a reason. The most recent house I bought, five years ago, when I walked in, I knew it was the right house. The things that were negative were really not important. I found that equally true in hiring someone. If my first impression is that they’re not really right for the job, I didn’t spend time trying to convince myself that they really would be good at it.
What is the golden rule by which you live?
Be of use.
Where, or to whom or what, do you turn to in dark times?
To my partner, Igael Gurin. He’s a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of San Francisco.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’m someone who believes more in perspiration than inspiration.
What’s something about you that people would find surprising?
I’m a terrible car driver. When I bought a used car and took it to my mechanic for the first time, they told me that they had already stocked side mirrors for me because they knew I would knock them off.
What would you most want to hear your colleagues say about you?
One of my staff said that I could “disagree without being disagreeable.” I thought that was very flattering.
What led you to do the kind of work you do?
I always wanted to be of use. I loved medicine because it was a direct way to make people feel better. I became a public health official because, while practicing medicine is rewarding, the amount of difference you can make is very small. I can make a difference in the lives of hundreds of people. As a public health official, I try to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.