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Dr. Stephanie Joan Woolhandler





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1951


Medical School

Louisiana State University School of Medicine


Geography

LOCATION
Massachusetts


Career Path

Internal medicine
Education: Teaching
Public health: Social medicine
Dr. Stephanie Joan Woolhandler



Milestones

YEAR
1986
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler helped found Physicians for a National Health Program, a not-for-profit organization for physicians, medical students, and other health care professionals who advocate a national health insurance program.


Inspiration

After several years of working in the movement against the Vietnam War, I sought a career that would allow me to continue my work for social change. I also loved math and science. Medicine was a career that allowed me to combine both my interests.



Biography

Dr. Stephanie J. Woolhandler advocates guaranteed access to health care for all members of society, including the forty-two million Americans currently without medical insurance. In 1986 she helped found Physicians for a National Health Program, a not-for-profit organization for physicians, medical students, and other health care professionals who advocate a national health insurance program.

Stephanie Woolhandler was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1951 and earned her bachelor's degree at Stanford University in California in 1975. She graduate with her doctor of medicine degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine in 1979. She returned to the West Coast for her internship and residency at the University of California-San Francisco, and earned her master's degree in public health at the University of California-Berkeley. In 1983 Dr. Woolhandler moved to Massachusetts and began a medical residency at The Cambridge Hospital, where she served as the National Health Services Research Fellow in general internal medicine from 1986 to 1987. During this time she credits Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, chief of medicine, with helping her develop a vision of how she could combine her social activism with a medical career.

Dr. Woolhandler originally envisioned a life of service to the poor where she would be providing hands-on care. Explaining her choice of medicine as a career she recalled, "After several years of working in the movement against the Vietnam War, I sought a career that would allow me to continue my work for social change. I also loved math and science. Medicine was a career that allowed me to combine both my interests...I could reach a large audience for progressive ideas by publishing in medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the JAMA."

On the Harvard faculty since 1987, Dr. Woolhandler has conducted research and published her results in dozens of articles, chapters, and books, including Bleeding the Patient:The Consequences of Corporate Health Care, published in 2000. Studying the inequalities in health and health care, administrative costs in medicine, and national health insurance, she promotes a national health program with a single payer system. Towards that end, she helped found Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) in 1986, a not-for-profit organization of physicians, medical students, and other health care professionals who support a national health insurance program. Since that time, PNHP has flourished and now numbers about ten thousand physicians who support national non-profit health insurance.

Still providing patient care as an attending physician at The Cambridge Hospital, Dr. Woolhandler also serves as chair of the academic promotions committee. At Harvard she serves as co-director of the school's general internal medicine fellowship program. Numerous honors and awards have recognized her contributions to health care. In 1990 she was the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow for the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences. In 1994 she received the Edward K. Barsky Award from the Physicians Forum and in 1996 the Ethical Culture Society named her "Humanist of the Year."



Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

At the time, the medical profession and medical education establishments were rife with sexism. My medical school class was less than 15 percent female. Accepted female applicants had MCAT scores about 100 points higher than accepted male applicants, indicating significant discrimination in the admissions process. Lectures on breast anatomy were illustrated with Playboy centerfolds; sexist jokes and sexual propositions from professors were common. Moreover, the hours of work expected during hospital rotations were so long that it was virtually impossible to survive without a spouse (generally a wife) to take care of things at home. The overall environment in medical school was unwelcoming to women.

How do I make a difference?

I have focused my career on care of the underserved. I have done this through clinical work at public hospitals, by research, and by organizing with other doctors to advocate for equality in health care. The number one priority in U.S. health care at this time is guaranteeing universal financial access to care. My major intellectual contribution has been shedding light on the extremely high administrative costs of a market-based health care system and the tremendous administrative saving possible under national health insurance (NHI). I also helped to found Physicians for a National Health Program, a group of about 10,000 physicians that advocates non-profit NHI.

Who was my mentor?

My mentors include Robert S. Lawrence, M.D., then chief of medicine at The Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Lawrence helped me envisage how my social activism might be combined with an academic career. I have also learned a great deal about how to relate to the media and national policy-makers from Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington, D.C.

How has my career evolved over time?

I originally envisioned a career of service to the poor, in which I would be providing hands-on care to the underserved. I later realized that I could reach a large audience for progressive ideas by publishing in medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the JAMA. My focus shifted to written scholarship, though I have continued to practice clinical medicine part-time. Over the past decade, I have worked on training younger researchers in techniques and strategies of scholarship for social change.


National Library of Medicine