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Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith, MD

Attending Physician
NYC Health + Hospitals/Gotham Health, Sydenham

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A Devoted Advocate for HIV Care

On a hospital rotation when she was a student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the late 1980s, Dr. Cheryl Smith was unsettled by the encounters she saw between hospital staff and patients with HIV. “It was the height of the epidemic and in the emergency room people with HIV were being ostracized,” Dr. Smith recalls. “They were just not being treated politely.” 

It was a jarring experience that set the course for Dr. Smith’s career. Seeing first-hand how people with the virus were a stigmatized and woefully underserved population, she started taking elective courses in infectious diseases and focused her primary care residency on HIV. “It was just something that my heart gravitated to,” she said. 

And it’s where her heart remains. For more than 30 years, Dr. Smith has been one of New York City’s most dedicated HIV-AIDS doctors – not only serving the medical needs of those with HIV but advocating for critical social supports and helping lead the state’s education and prevention efforts. 

In 1999, Dr. Smith created one of New York’s first HIV/hepatitis C programs at North General Hospital in Harlem. She joined NYC Health + Hospitals/Gotham Health, Sydenham, in 2014, and has been widely admired since the day she arrived – for her commitment and expertise, her teamwork with colleagues and the partnerships she forms with her patients that are essential to the quality of care they receive. 

The dramatic advances in treatment since the dark, early days of the AIDS crisis have changed the nature of Dr. Smith’s work. At Sydenham, she has about 150 HIV patients and virtually all are on antiretroviral therapy that keeps viral loads undetectable for most. That success has largely shifted the focus of care from patients’ physical health to the hardships they face beyond their disease. Housing is a major one. “The psycho-social determinants of health are tremendously important in every disease but they are particularly and critically important with HIV,” Dr. Smith says.

Since 2008, Dr. Smith has also been an associate medical director at the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute, where she founded and directs a program that uses digital technology to improve education and communication about HIV and epidemics. Her long career has made her a nationally recognized authority on many HIV-related topics, including disparities in African American and Hispanic communities and HIV in older adults. 

Dr. Smith’s advocacy extends beyond her medical practice. For 10 years, she has been a member of Central Harlem’s Community Board 10, working on a wide array of community issues from health and social services to economic development. “We don’t solve all of the concerns,” she says, “but we listen and try to be the voice of the community.”  

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