African-American woman to lead U.S. medical school—right here at
Ross-Lee, D.O., made history when she became dean of the Ohio
University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM) in 1993, making
her the first African-American woman to administer a medical school
in the United States.
Since leaving in
2001, Ross-Lee—the older sister of Diana Ross—has been the
president of health sciences and medical affairs at the New York
Institute of Technology and dean of its medical school. As a scholar
and speaker, she works hard to raise awareness of racial and ethnic
Ross-Lee returned to Athens last week to deliver a Minority Health
Month talk to OU-COM students.
Interview by Richard Heck
said that, when pursuing medicine, you experienced more
discrimination based on gender than on race. Can you talk about
country—and this was certainly true during the Civil Rights
Movement—you tend to be very sensitive to being a minority. Your
behavior, your way of engaging people, is largely based on the
recognition that you are a minority. It was not until I got into
academia that I realized the extent of biases against women.
advisor discouraged me from becoming a doctor because of my gender,
so I pursued education before returning to medicine. Throughout my
medical education, being female was at least as big a challenge as
being African-American. During my internship, for example, a white,
male physician would always arrive any time I was paged to treat a
patient—he assumed that I was not as capable.
think that atmosphere is changing?
I think it is
changing and for the better. We in academic medicine are just
starting to see women in leadership positions. We’re now seeing
women represented, in more than numbers of one or two, in all the
medical disciplines and all the specialty disciplines. It is not
perfect yet, but we’re always in search of the perfect, I think.
specialties and subspecialties seem to reflect the most disparity in
terms of physician diversity?
I would guess
surgical specialties—the specialties that pay a lot of
money—probably have the least diversity from both gender and racial
perspectives. They are very competitive fields and therefore are
slower in breaking the cycle of tradition. We all have a tendency to
select people who look or act similar to us, because we feel more
comfortable with them. So that is a hard, hard nut to crack.
your suggestions for bridging the gap of physician diversity?
certainly shown what can happen with the issues in women’s health
care by entering health care professions in larger numbers. Now the
real challenge in diversity is in other underrepresented
populations: those with more obstacles in the education pipeline,
those who are more economically deprived. We have a system that
depends on success at lower levels of education, and women today are
academically competitive—at least those in majority populations
I am one of
those glass-half-full people. I think there are strategies that we
can use to boost diversity recruitment and access, strategies that
work. The issue is one of commitment and of resources.
you say are the most pressing issues in terms of demographic health
Insurance. Now insurance is the ticket that gets you in the door,
and the demographic disparities among the insured must be
attending an osteopathic medical college make a difference in how
your career developed?
made a difference in my perspective on health care and my practice
of medicine. As a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O), I
incorporate an emphasis on primary care medicine and the holistic
philosophy of Andrew Taylor Still (the founder of osteopathic
medicine), which are things that came very naturally to me, but
which are often absent from the allopathic (M.D.) pathways.
your greatest achievement while at OU-COM?
CORE (the Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education), and
realizing the potential for this osteopathic medical education
continuum—from day one all the way through medical practice.
Ross-Lee established one of the nation’s first osteopathic medical
education consortiums, the CORE. This partnership of more than 25
Ohio osteopathic teaching hospitals serves medical students from
their third- and fourth-year rotations and on through their
residency programs. It has become one of the largest, most advanced
and best-supported medical education networks in the country.)
you gain from your time at Ohio University?
It taught me
the potential of a system that could be much, much bigger than we
thought it could be, and have an impact much, much broader than we
thought possible. Of course, none of this would have happened
without the nurturing environment, the commitment and support
systems that already existed, not just on this campus but
throughout Ohio, a very proud osteopathic state. I think the skill I
brought to this was to connect the dots and move the agenda—but the
ideas were certainly not original to me; they came from the faculty
professional priorities now and for the future?
I am focused
on improving the health policies of this country and contributing to
the development of osteopathic medical leadership. That is another
thing I am extremely proud of, the Health Policy Fellowship program
that we were able to establish at OU-COM and then spread to other
What do you
think of President Obama’s stance on medical reform?
encouraged by his fundamental concept of what a health care delivery
system should look like—and by the fact that he is keeping it on the
agenda by connecting health care to our current economic situation.
for us in health care reform is that we are not in the same place as
we were in 1965, when we developed Medicare and Medicaid. We are not
in the place as we were in 1990, when were just talking about
commercialization of medicine.
Where we are
today is largely based on the changing demographic in this country,
the economic circumstances of the country and the significant health
delivery disparities between this country and other countries—even
though we spend more money than other countries.
We need to go
back and look at the fundamentals. We are confronting shortages of
physicians, which cannot be made up by the growth of osteopathic
medicine alone. We need to look at other health professionals and
expand their role in primary care. We have to form a continuum of
care that emphasizes health and prevention.
lead: government or academia?
to lead, because nothing will happen otherwise. Academia should have
a seat at the table, but so should many other stakeholders: medical
professionals, diverse patient populations—including the underserved
and uninsured, and also employers, because the cost of health care
is such a drain on their ability to survive in an economic downturn.
interesting: Health is one those things that impact everybody,
everywhere. Not one person is exempt, not one business, not one
institution; everybody has to be there, and that is a daunting
challenge for reform.