ATLANTA – Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice has made history. The natural born leader has been appointed the new president of Morehouse School of Medicine – the nation’s first African-American woman to lead a free-standing medical school.
And when you consider the under-representation of black women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, Montgomery’s selection is a remarkable accomplishment.
But for those who have followed her impressive career it does not come as a surprise. The Macon, Georgia, native has an outstanding resume.
When asked about the secret of her success the Harvard-educated obstetrician and gynecologist says in no uncertain terms that it is her “passion.” She adds, “The one thing I have always been fortunate to have is passion.”
Indeed, she is a renowned infertility specialist and reproductive endocrinologist. Her work in women’s health and research has earned her international recognition, especially her steadfast commitment to eliminating disparities in women’s health.
Rice says women make the majority of health care decisions for the family so it is important they take better care of themselves and make the right choices. “It is critical for women to be healthy because they play a very pivotal role in determining the health and welfare of their family.”
Among her many triumphs is her founding of Meharry’s Center for Women’s Health Research in Nashville, Tennessee. The center has been credited as one of the nation’s first research facilities devoted exclusively to studying diseases that disproportionately impact women of color.
By all accounts, Rice’s journey to the highest position at the medical school is expected to be a seamless transition. Unlike external candidates who she beat to get the job, Rice is already settled as dean and executive vice president of the Morehouse School House of Medicine (MSM), a role she assumed in 2011.
She will spend the next months in his current job as well as preparing to take the helm alongside the current president John Maupin Jr., who will retire in a year. Her inauguration as the medical school’s sixth president is slated for July 1, 2014.
In a new arrangement, Rice will also retain her position as dean alongside her new role.
Rice says despite her success she still has more to accomplish. She is on a mission to keep MSM relevant, while staying true to its original ideals to diversity the workforce and work towards the elimination of health disparities.
Some of the school’s main areas of research include neuroscience, HIV intervention, cardiovascular diseases and cancer prevention, she says. “We focus our research on areas where we see disproportionate inequalities in under-served communities.”
In fact, a recent study ranked MSM as the number one medical school in the country in the terms of social mission. This is something the incoming president is especially proud of.
The community-based medical school has achieved great success with the majority of graduating physicians – more than 60 percent – opting to practice primary care and work in underserved areas, she says.
Still, despite the handful of HBCU medical schools there is a notable shortage of African-American doctors. Moreover, according to a recent report from the American Association of Medical Colleges a decreasing number of black males are applying to medical school.
To address this imbalance MSM has put together a strategy to expand its pipeline programs to K-12 students interested in exploring STEM fields, says Rice. There are also plans to extend these ongoing initiatives with MSM alumni, she adds.
Mindful that the Affordable Care Act will likely increase the demand for primary care physicians, Rice is passionate about plans to continue to “incrementally increase the number of students each year” from an entering class of 70 to 100 by 2016.
She also believes change is an opportunity to diversify. “We’re looking at a physician assistant program as a viable career option for students,” that are not interested in becoming physicians but want to work within the profession.
The medical school already has a close partnership with Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. But it is set to forge new alliances and partnerships to keep the program relevant and on the cutting edge of emerging medical science.
Rice’s future vision is to provide creative, holistic and culturally appropriate patient care by “educating and training clinicians and scientists who will lead the nation in the elimination of health disparities.”
“It’s not just about medical intervention but social intervention,” she says. “We have to engage people in their communities to make sure we can get patients engaged in the research.
“We have to provide patients with resources to help them self-engage in their care.”
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