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Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O.

Q&A: Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O.

First African-American woman to lead U.S. medical school—right here at Ohio University

Barbara 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 vice 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 health disparities.

Ross-Lee returned to Athens last week to deliver a Minority Health Month talk to OU-COM students.

Interview by Richard Heck

April 28, 2009 

You have said that, when pursuing medicine, you experienced more discrimination based on gender than on race. Can you talk about that?

In this 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.

My college 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.

Do you 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. 

Which 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.

What are your suggestions for bridging the gap of physician diversity? 

Women have 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. 

What would you say are the most pressing issues in terms of demographic health care disparities?

Simply put: Insurance. Now insurance is the ticket that gets you in the door, and the demographic disparities among the insured must be addressed. 

Did attending an osteopathic medical college make a difference in how your career developed?

It certainly 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.

What was your greatest achievement while at OU-COM?  

Founding the 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.

(At OU-COM, 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.) 

What did 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 and students.

What are 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 osteopathic schools.

What do you think of President Obama’s stance on medical reform? 

I am 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.

The challenge 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.

 Who should lead: government or academia?

Government has 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.

It’s 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.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016