Former head prison doctor replaces Anne Zink as Alaska’s chief medical officer

Man smiles and wears a suit and tie against a blue-grey background.
Dr. Robert Lawrence is a family medicine doctor and previously worked as the chief medical officer for the Department of Corrections. (Image courtesy of Alaska Division of Public Health)

Dr. Robert Lawrence started as Alaska’s new chief medical officer on Monday. Lawrence replaces Dr. Anne Zink, who served as chief medical officer for five years and led the state’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Lawrence, a family medicine doctor who began his work in rural Alaska, previously served as the chief medical officer for the state’s Department of Corrections. He said he learned a lot about health issues in Alaska while working there. 

“What that provided me was this snapshot view of all the problems that we are struggling with across Alaska, but in this concentrated form,” Lawrence said. “And what attracted me to this position is an opportunity to take that magnifying glass and sort of pull it back and see the bigger picture.”

The Department of Corrections is currently being sued for wrongful deaths of two prisoners and has been under scrutiny for a record number of deaths and high suicide rates of incarcerated people in 2022. Lawrence said it’s important for Alaskans to take a hard look at why people are dying in prisons in the state, but he said the Department of Corrections has worked to reduce deaths and make sure that people who are incarcerated leave in better shape than when they arrive.

In his new job as Alaska’s chief medical officer, Lawrence will provide a clinical perspective to state programs and leaders. Lawrence said the role is important but he isn’t coming into the position with an agenda and it’s impossible to predict what issues he’ll face. 

“What doesn’t change is having a person positioned in a department like this who understands what it’s like to take care of a patient at the bedside who might be getting news they weren’t expecting,” Lawrence said. “We need people who understand what [it’s] like to try to connect people to care, and understand all of those barriers that prevent a person getting the services that they need.”

He said one of the reasons he switched to leadership positions in health was because he saw many of his family practice patients hitting those barriers to care. 

Lawrence said he admires the work of his predecessor, Dr. Anne Zink, and he thinks health problems in the state are solvable because so many people in Alaska care about their neighbors and their communities. 

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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