Barbara Ross Lee: The Beauty of the Broken-Field Run

There’s no doubt that Dr. Barbara Ross Lee has led a distinguished career. The first African-American woman to be appointed Dean of a medical school, her other accomplishments include participation in the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship and garnering numerous awards. But for Ross, the path to success was full of twists and turns.
“At my institution, we call it the ‘broken field run’,” she told Student Doctor Network during an interview at the 2014 UC Davis Pre-Health conference. “It wasn’t as if I (had the typical path and) went to school and did pre-med and then went to medical school and then went into post-graduate training. I went to undergrad, then I got a job, then I got married, had kids, then I went back and got a masters, and then the opportunity arose for me to go to medical school.” And that’s just the beginning of her storied career.

Born in 1942, Ross-Lee (the sister of the legendary Diana Ross) grew up in a housing project in Detroit, Michigan. She tried to pursue medicine as an undergrad at Wayne State, but was discouraged by an advisor who refused to grant Ross-Lee’s request to major in human anatomy, since women – especially black women- didn’t become doctors. Instead, Ross-Lee became a teacher.
Years later, when Michigan State University opened its College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ross-Lee was granted a second chance at pursuing her dream. Balancing her studies with her responsibilities as a single mom, she finally graduated in 1973 and went into private practice, serving a low-income community in Detroit. “I think I felt much more responsible for [my patients’] care than we often see in the practice of medicine today, because I was practicing in an underserved area where people weren’t insured. If I didn’t give them the care, they weren’t going to get it. This has a tendency to make you better, and realizing that I had to be as good as I could be for my patients was a defining direction.”
This experience also ushered in a proverbial third act for Ross-Lee. “I was frustrated with the system; that I couldn’t help my patients as much as I wanted to,” she explains. So she thought about a career shift. “I thought if I joined academia, I might be able to facilitate some change. And then, I found out that wasn’t where change happened – that’s when I applied to the Robert Johnson fellowship.” She was the first osteopath to participate in the program, a “prestigious fellowship at the nexus of health science, policy, and politics” which offers hands-on health policy experience on the federal level. Ross-Lee claims this was a defining moment in her life. “[The fellowship] set a whole course [for my career]. I have a passion for health policy – and I think its important for many more physicians need to be able to see the health system from the high ground to make it as good as it can be for the patients they serve.”
One of the ways she believes this can be done is by training physicians in a more community-oriented manner. “We have broken education into so many segments, and it remains broken into segments because of how education is funded, and that detracts from our ability to be as effective and efficient in creating a workforce that can evolve with the system,” she says.
Becoming Dean of New York Institute of Technology’s New York College of Osteopathic Medicine has allowed Ross-Lee to do her best to try and effect change in this regard, and attending conferences like the UCD Pre-Health Conference is one of the opportunities she most enjoys. “We all get caught in our little silos… [The conference] is an opportunity not just to talk to the students, but to get a feel for the students themselves,” she says. “We have a tendency in medical schools to talk down to the students, but my goal is to engage [the students] in a thought process that will stimulate dialogue as to their importance and value in the future of healthcare.”
As Ross-Lee is the first female minority to become dean of a medical school, she has a unique perspective on the role that race and gender play in medical education. “When I aspired to medicine, women were not in medicine, and minorities were not in medicine. So the challenges were from both sides,” she reflects. “As a minority, at the time, I considered all the challenges and barriers to be based on race. But then later in my career, I appreciated that there are just as significant barriers based on gender. The barriers changed over time, particularly for women; the more women in medicine, the more rapidly the barriers have disappeared. The challenges are still there, though, even if there are no legal barriers anymore for minorities to go into medicine.”
The best way to beat these barriers, according to Ross-Lee, is to keep pushing yourself to be better. This starts by being honest with yourself. “Each student–particularly if they are a minority–must keep their own counsel about whether they are good, and whether they need to get better. Because the system is not as honest or frank with minorities as they need to be, and they already make assumptions. So it’s important for the student to know: this is where I am weak, and this is where I need to get stronger; this is where I need to improve, and let me find the opportunities to make that necessary improvement,” she advises. “It takes more work, but what else is new? If you’re committed and you want to do it, you can get it done. You may have to do it through a broken field run, or you may have to work twice as hard, but you can get it done.”

Suzanne Barston is a Chicago-based writer and journalist specializing in the areas of healthcare and science.