Medical Movers & Shakers: African-American Women Are on the Front Lines of Improving Health Care

By Henderson, Shirley | Ebony, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Medical Movers & Shakers: African-American Women Are on the Front Lines of Improving Health Care


Henderson, Shirley, Ebony


Growing up in Nigeria, Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, M.D., was urged by her father, a minister, to become a doctor. "He realized that the health of his congregation was poor" says Dr. Olopade. "He kept encouraging me. He saw a need among our people. That floats what I do."

Honoring her father's wishes, she studied medicine in Africa and later in the United States. Today she is director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics in the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago Hospital.

Inside one of her two labs that are stocked to capacity with rubber gloves and test tubes, Dr. Olopade has been advancing the area of cancer genetics through tireless research to find out why Black women develop breast cancer earlier than White women. Nixing the idea that the cause may be environmental factors such as poverty and lack of health care, she determined that Black women developed a more aggressive type of breast cancer, which she bases on genetic factors. Dr. Olopade also challenged the long-held belief that breast cancer is one single disease. "Now that we know why some women are so much more likely to get breast cancer, we can do something about it," says Dr. Olopade, who is working with doctors in Nigeria to study the gene in African women.

The groundbreaking research earned Dr. Olopade the MacArthur Foundation's genius award of $500,000--money that will help her continue her work here and in Africa.

Dr. Olopade is an example of the African-American women who are making a difference in health care and who are having a significant impact in medicine by addressing issues such as breast cancer, substance abuse, AIDS, and providing care for underserved individuals.

However, medical officials say there still are not enough African American doctors graduating from medical schools around the country and less than 10 percent of medical school faculty members are Black. According to the 2004 data provided by the American Medical Association, 8,437 female doctors are categorized as being African-American (out of 235,627 women physicians).

That's something that Joan Reede, M.D., dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School since 2002, is hoping to change. As many colleges, particularly those in the health and science fields, struggle with diversity among students and faculty, Dr. Reede's job includes providing an oversight for diversity efforts that relate to the medical school and affiliate hospitals and include faculty, residents, fellows, students and staff. "There have been challenges, but I don't think that they are unique to Harvard," say Dr. Reede. "One of the major issues has been trying to help people understand the importance of collaboration, so that it's not Harvard alone trying to address issues of diversity in academic medicine. You have to look at it from a perspective of being across academic levels. For example, unless you have students who are graduating from high school and able to complete college, you don't have the students who can apply to medical school."

Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., a graduate of Harvard Medical School who is currently dean of the School of Medicine at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., agrees. "The pipeline to medical school clearly has to start early," Dr. Rice says. "If you never see Black doctor, you never know that you can be one. In the first, second and third grades we have to teach them that they can be physicians."

At Meharry, which was founded in 1876 to train Black doctors, Dr. Rice has implemented some major changes, including doing more cutting-edge research inside the newly developed Center for Women's Health Research. …

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