During her long career, Barbara Ross-Lee, DO, repeatedly broke barriers and helped pave pathways for women and minorities in the osteopathic medical profession. In April, she retired from her post as vice president for Health Sciences and Medical Affairs at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM). The DO examines a career that, like the osteopathic medical profession, has been characterized by determination against all odds.
“This is a profession with moxie. Over and over again, we have refused to give up and refused to follow the easy path,” said Dr. Ross-Lee in delivering the A.T. Still Memorial Address to the AOA House of Delegates in 2011, in what she says is one of the proudest moments of her career.
Dr. Ross-Lee never lost sight of her goal to become a physician, even when the majority of the medical students in the classroom and physicians in practice didn’t look like her.
Her refusal to follow the easy path led her to becoming the first African-American woman to be named dean of a U.S. medical school and the first osteopathic physician to become a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy fellow.
“Her courageous impact as a physician, academic medical leader, and trailblazer created necessary and overdue disruptions to social norms of racism and gender inequity, clearing a path to diminish health disparities and enhance the diversity of the physician workforce pipeline,” says AOA CEO Adrienne White-Faines, MPA. “But, through her journey, she also inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of potential executive women of color, like myself, with the vision of possibility.”
A social disruptor
Dr. Ross-Lee says living through the civil rights movement led her to realize that there are all kinds of ways to make progress, whether it’s externally through demonstrations or internally by working through institutional systems.
“One of my biggest disruptions was founding the AOA’s Health Policy Fellowship program because it gave me an opportunity to challenge the emerging leadership of the profession to have a broader vision of diversity,” says Dr. Ross-Lee.
Social disruptions like these inspired leadership to help shape medicine so that physicians look like the populations they serve. Gaining trust and understanding from patients is better done if the physician looks like the patient or comes from the patient’s community, according to Dr. Ross-Lee.
“Every doctor-patient interaction is a cultural interaction,” she says. “It’s important to have a diverse workforce so that from the patient’s perspective, they can establish trust in their physician, but from the physician standpoint, we have to understand that culture is extremely important in the dynamic interaction between patients and physicians.”
Dr. Ross-Lee credits her social disruption among patients, physicians and educators to unpredictability.
“You have to engage people in a way they don’t expect because that’s where the bias is,” she says. “The bias is people behaving in ways in which they are expected to behave based upon some sort of isolated belief. You cannot be predictable.”
Despite announcing her retirement from NYITCOM, Dr. Ross-Lee’s work is hardly over. She is taking on opportunities that will allow her to look at other functions in health care education in order to bring a fresh perspective to osteopathic medicine.
“Once you announce your retirement, it’s amazing to me how many wonderful opportunities come up,” says Dr. Ross-Lee, who will serve as a consultant to the international division of the Association of Academic Health Centers.
Larry Wickless, DO, president of the American Osteopathic Foundation (AOF), has also nominated Dr. Ross-Lee to serve on the AOF board.
“My plate is full,” she says. “But at least I don’t have to punch a clock, so how’s that?”