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Old Westbury doctor blazing a policy trail

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, an Old Westbury college executive

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, an Old Westbury college executive and the first black woman to lead a U.S. medical school, recently collaborated on a report on the nation's physician workforce for President Obama and Congress. (Feb. 22, 2011) Photo Credit: David Pokress

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury is one of the highest-ranking African-American women at a U.S. medical school, and at age 68 she shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, the vice president of health sciences and medical affairs is revving up.

Her areas of concern are growing -- as is her influence as one of the nation's leading voices in medical policy. Her analyses on health care have meaning for patients as well as health care analysts.

Ross-Lee and a panel of policy experts recently submitted a report to President Barack Obama and Congress on the physician workforce. There aren't enough doctors in practice, and more are needed, they concluded.

In August she will tackle health disparities, co-chairing the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Health Equities Summit in the nation's capital. The summit -- part of a wider group of activities planned for the August dedication of the King memorial in Washington -- will focus on how people who have not had access to medical care are faring under health care reform.

Her work in medical policy has earned her many honors.

Ross-Lee is executive director of the Institute for National Health Policy and Research. She also serves on the board of directors for the Association of Academic Health Centers, the National Fund for Medical Education and the National Health Service Corps Association of Clinicians for the Underserved.

She lectures widely on health policy, yet those accomplishments are only a snapshot in the broader picture of her life.


Success in the family

Upon meeting her, it is difficult to mistake the resemblance to her superstar sibling -- Diana Ross. The smile and eyes are definite family traits. Still, it's tempting to ask how two sisters became high achievers in such diverse careers.

"It is always surprising to people that we have pursued such different paths," said the soft-spoken Ross-Lee, who in 1993 became the first black woman to lead a U.S. medical school when she was named dean of Ohio University's osteopathic medical college. She became dean of the N.Y. College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2001 and has held her current post since 2006.

"Diane's career is so different from mine," Ross-Lee said, using her sister's given name. "When people ask, it always catches me off guard. I am very proud of her -- and she's very proud of me."

Ross-Lee, who is older by a year, is close to her sister. They speak frequently by phone and often trade jokes about who works hardest. "She says she has the toughest job because she works nights," Ross-Lee said with a laugh.

Ross-Lee is the quintessential professor: serious and committed to students. She heads the college's health policy fellowship program and has authored more than 30 scholarly papers.

Yet, on occasion she can be seen volunteering at health fairs or working in mobile health vans. She remains licensed in family medicine.

"I've had to back away from practice, and every time I say that I get sad because I went into medicine because I love it," Ross-Lee said. "But I also love the big-picture issues."


Spotlighting a problem

The analysis she and her colleagues submitted to lawmakers rings an ominous note. "Almost every area of health care has a [personnel] shortage, and for those of us responsible for training the health care workforce, that is a dilemma," said Ross-Lee, a former member of the New York State Council on Graduate Medical Education.

She said shortages also exist in nursing, dentistry and public health. The country will need more medical professionals, Ross-Lee added, if the Affordable Care Act -- health care reform -- is to prove effective. Ross-Lee is adamant in her beliefs about the law: Because it is focused on health insurance, she said, it cannot help end health disparities that affect many vulnerable populations.

Ross-Lee holds a D.O. -- a doctorate in osteopathic medicine, a branch that 100 years ago had deep philosophical differences from conventional medicine. They're now essentially the same.

All five of her children have pursued professional careers. Her oldest daughter is a medical doctor, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

"When she chose ob-gyn, I told her to think about it," Ross-Lee said. "I said, 'You're going to be on call a lot.' But she didn't listen to me. And you know what happened -- she has been on call a lot."

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