Spotlighting Amazing Women in Health Care
Women’s contributions to society are deep and last long beyond Women’s History Month. Therefore, I’m proud to bring you a few of my personal thoughts on women who influenced health care and inspire me every day.
Reducing Infant Mortality
Many of us have heard of the Apgar score, a list of criteria that helps doctors and nurses assess the health of newborns. Specifically, Apgar scores evaluate heart rate, respiration, movement, irritability, and color.
What many of us don’t know about is the woman behind the test, Dr. Virginia Apgar. I first read about her in Atul Gawande’s book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apgar’s “simple, rapid method for assessing newborn viability, the ‘Apgar score,’ has long been standard practice. Developed in the early 1950s and quickly adopted by obstetric teams, the method reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology.”
According to New York-Presbyterian’s profile “It Happened Here: The Apgar Score,” Apgar earned her M.D. in 1933 from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. She was one of only nine women in her class. Although she was an excellent student, because she was a woman, one of her mentors discouraged her from pursuing her dream of becoming a surgeon and suggested anesthesia instead.
Back at her medical school alma mater, she became the first female full professor and, later, the director of obstetric anesthesia. According to “It Happened Here …,” “Apgar not only championed newborn babies, she also paved the way for women to pursue careers in medicine.”
Keeping Patients Safe
Like Apgar, Frances Oldham Kelsey advocated for patients. After earning degrees in pharmacology and medicine, Kelsey worked in a variety of roles, including teaching, paper review, and general medicine practice. In 1960, as a medical officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), she reviewed new drug applications.
According to the FDA, one of the first applications to come across Kelsey’s desk was for the sedative thalidomide, for the treatment of morning sickness in pregnant women. Although the drug was already approved elsewhere in the world for this purpose, Kelsey was not satisfied with the integrity of the safety data presented. She asked for more information.
The drug’s manufacturer continued to pressure Kelsey, but she stood her ground. She insisted there was a lack of reliable evidence that the drug was safe. Meanwhile, thousands of babies throughout the world were being born with severe birth defects resulting from thalidomide.
According to the Washington Post, that “tragedy was largely averted in the United States, with much credit due to Kelsey. ... For a critical 19-month period, she fastidiously blocked [thalidomide’s] approval while drug company officials maligned her as a bureaucratic nitpicker.”
Kelsey’s strength of conviction shed light on the importance of data integrity. In 1962, the Kefauver-Harris Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, passed unanimously by Congress, established a framework for companies to prove the safety and effectiveness of their medications.
Throughout her career, Kelsey remained dedicated to ensuring the integrity of scientific data. She moved on to head the FDA’s Investigational Drugs Branch and, later, the Division of Scientific Investigations. She retired from FDA after 45 years of service at the age of 90.
Who inspires you? There will be plenty of inspiration during AMCP 2021, April 12-16, 2021. For the opening general session, we will welcome Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, a leader in improving patient safety and health outcomes, reducing stigma and health care disparities, women’s health, public health, corporate leadership, and diversity.
There’s still time to register for AMCP 2021. Don’t miss your opportunity to be inspired.