Health-Care Marker

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Most women, when asked what diseases they should look out for, would be quick to identify breast and cervical cancer. But too many would overlook the serious threats posed by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

“Women tend to take care of others, and too often ignore their own health,” says Maureen Phipps, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a doctor at Women & Infants Hospital. Frustrated by this trend, Phipps applied on behalf of Brown and the hospital for federal designation as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. This fall, the Brown–Women & Infants program was named one of thirteen such centers nationally, and one of only three in New England (the others are at Harvard and Boston University).

“This is a contract, not a map,” Phipps said, pointing to the five-inch-thick binder that comprised the application. The designation is a four-year renewable contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop models for improving women’s health on five fronts: clinical care, research, medical education, community outreach, and leadership development

The latter, Phipps explains, is a commitment “to increase the numbers of women academic leaders.” Although more than 50 percent of medical students are now female, at most medical schools, including Brown’s, the upper ranks of the faculty are predominately male. Responsibility for supporting early career faculty will fall to Michelle Cyr ’00 A.M., an associate professor who has been named associate dean for women’s medicine—a new post.

“Mentorship will be a big component,” says Phipps, as will teaching grant-writing and other academic career-building skills that many clinical faculty don’t develop.

While the award doesn’t provide research funding, Phipps says, “the expectation is that this designation will be leveraged.” The Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies give preference to Centers of Excellence grant applications, and all Brown faculty are eligible to apply.

Women & Infants is building a health-resource library where patients can access the Internet, watch videos, and read other sources of medical information. The hospital also runs a primary-care center for women, about 70 percent of whom receive either Medicare or Medicaid, Phipps says: “It’s a vulnerable population.” There, the center will study what methods work best to get women screened for such diseases as cervical and colon cancer. “We want to know, What are the barriers?” Phipps says. “This is about providing culturally competent care.… We’re developing a model for other programs.”

Rhode Island’s relatively small size brings advantages, Phipps says. Still, some specialties—obstetrics and gynecology and cardiology for instance—have acted as though they own their particular piece of women’s medicine, and a major thrust of the award is multidisciplinary. Phipps points to a stop-smoking project that involves researchers from psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology, and ob-gyn.

In the medical school, she says, “We will be looking at how medicine is taught.” She ticked off a list of other places where women’s medicine is taught: residency programs, fellowships, clinical trials, grand rounds. “It’s huge,” she says.

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January / February 2004