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#WomenofPenn: Reshaping a Department Through Research, Innovation, and Advocacy — A Conversation with Deborah Driscoll

Deborah Driscoll, MD
Deborah Driscoll, MD

The following post is part of a year-long online campaign highlighting #WomenofPenn. The campaign, developed by FOCUS on Women’s Health and Leadership and Penn Medicine Communications, promotes the work being done by women at Penn Medicine and aims to inspire early-career women in academic medicine through the examples of successful women role models.

Maybe it was her stint as a candy striper when she was in ninth grade, or her job as a unit secretary on a patient care unit. But Deborah Driscoll, MD, knew early on that she wanted to enter medicine. And, although she never aspired to become a department chair, she knew that she wanted to make a difference.  For the thousands of patients she has helped and for the many women following in her professional footsteps, she has.

Driscoll has been chair of Penn’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) since 2005. She is widely recognized as a transformative leader and one of the world's leading obstetrician-gynecologist geneticists, specializing in the care of women with genetic disorders. She is also the director of Penn’s Center for Research on Reproduction & Women’s Health and the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center. Driscoll recently completed a four-year term as the first woman president of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in its 90-year history.

Amanda Labora is a 4th year student at the Perelman School of Medicine. She will begin a residency in OB/GYN at University of California at San Francisco in July (and her choice to specialize in OB/GYN washighlighted last month on the Penn Medicine News Blog). She recently sat down with Driscoll to talk about leadership, advocacy, innovation, and more.

Q (Labora): How did you first become interested in medicine?

Amanda Labora
Amanda Labora

A (Driscoll): I started volunteering at my local hospital when I was in ninth grade, as a candy striper. I worked in the gift shop, the lunch counter, even folding laundry! My first job was as a unit secretary on the weekend. I enjoyed working with the hospital staff, patients and their families, and began to think seriously about a career as a physician. I also liked my science classes so it seemed like a good fit. My grandmother, a single working mom, inspired me to pursue a career in medicine despite my own mother’s initial reaction when I announced I wanted to become a doctor. Today, my mother is my biggest fan.

Q: Were there any periods when entering medical school when you thought ‘I don’t know if this is really what I want to do,’ or felt discouraged?

A: Yes! I applied to medical school from college and was wait-listed. So, I got a job at Rockefeller University [in New York City], working on sickle cell anemia. I thought about other career options but two years later reapplied and was accepted at NYU. That experience was the best thing that happened to me at the time. I was not accustomed to failing but in retrospect it made me stronger and pushed me outside my comfort zone. It forced me to live on my own in a diverse city, very different from where I grew up and attended college. I learned to be more adaptable and that helped to make me a better person.

Q: How did you decide you wanted to specialize in OB/GYN?

A: I struggled with that decision because I really liked endocrinology and had considered applying to internal medicine programs. But in the end, I chose OB/GYN and I have never regretted it. It was exciting, unpredictable, fast paced, intellectually challenging and I had opportunity to treat patients both medically and surgically.

Q: Where did you get your focus on genetics?

A: I always liked genetics. When I was a freshman in college, I petitioned to take genetics, when it was typically only offered to sophomores and juniors. When I was finishing my residency, I was looking for something that was new and challenging and would complement what I was doing in OB/GYN. Dr. Michael Mennuti [a former chair of the department] was one of the first board-certified obstetrician geneticists in the country – he became a role model for me.

Q: You’re the first OB/GYN woman chair at Penn and an inspiration of all women coming after you – in many fields. Did you aspire to this level?

A: I never aspired to be a chair but I do recall when I went to tell my internal medicine professor at NYU medical school that I had decided to apply in OB/GYN, he said ‘you’ll be a chair one day.’ I never thought about it until it happened. He obviously saw something in me that I hadn’t realized in myself!

About 16 years ago I was asked to consider applying for a position in Penn’s Office of the Vice Dean for Education, but was also asked, did I want to be a chair some day? I went home and thought about it and decided I could have a far greater impact on women’s health and my specialty as a chair.

Q: For those of us who aren’t familiar with what the responsibility of chair means, tell us what sort of influence did you envision having?

A: Chairs are responsible for the department’s tripartite mission – clinical care, research and education.  One of my primary goals was to engage the faculty in a strategic planning process to define our vision, mission and goals. To expand our clinical and research programs we leveraged the strengths of our faculty to take advantage of their talent, expertise and interests. I encouraged the faculty to develop clinical programs that complemented their research interests. I wanted to be sure women in our community would have improved access to care and receive exceptional service. One of our major initiatives was to build a strong safety culture.

Q: You’re very interested in innovation to solve problems in health care or OB/GYN. How did you become a proponent of innovation and what programs are you currently excited about?

A: Four years ago, we received an innovation accelerator grant from Penn’s Center for Health Care Innovation. When I saw how the Center approaches problems and uses rapid pilot studies to develop solutions – I got excited. We could use this approach to redesign how we provide care. With the move towards value-based care, we needed to improve our efficiency, reduce costs but still provide patients with high quality care.

So far, we’ve launched 18 pilot projects with assistance from the Innovation Center. Heartsafe Motherhood is the most widely recognized. In its first year, we showed we could improve compliance with the national guidelines for monitoring blood pressure in women with preeclampsia after delivery and reduce the readmission rate for hypertension.

We’re also redesigning our prenatal care practices. Using a mobile app, we are creating customized care that reduces the number of prenatal visits for some low-risk obstetrical patients. And we’ve improved satisfaction and access for our GYN patients for care. Patients want 24/7 access to health care information and love the convenience of having it on their phone.

Q: For someone who has accomplished so much in her life, what are you most proud of?

A: In my personal life, it’s my two children who are both pursuing careers in health care, one as a health care consultant, and the second is studying medicine. As a working mom you hope you will inspire your children and that they won’t resent you for not always being there for a tennis match or school play.

Professionally, I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish over the last decade as department chair. I have had the privilege to work with really talented, committed faculty and trainees that inspire me every day to want to do my best to ensure that women receive outstanding health care at Penn Medicine. My reward is helping them achieve their goals. I hope that I have inspired our trainees and junior faculty to be the next generation of leaders in OB/GYN.

Q: When you started your career, there were no women in leadership or faculty positions in OB/GYN at Penn. Now more women are pursuing this field but there’s a gap between women entering the field and women in leadership positions. Why do you think that is?

A: True, when I started at Penn, there were very few women in leadership positions. It’s taken a long time to see women rise to leadership positions but today, there are five women [full] professors in my department and soon to be two more, two vice chairs are women and four out of six division chiefs are women. There were none when I became chair, 14 years ago. I think women are more willing to apply for leadership roles today and Penn has great role models including President Gutmann.

Q: One of the things I love about OB/GYN is that opportunities to advocate for patients on a population level are so clear. In addition to pursuing research and advancing science behind women’s health care, what do you see as important roles OB/GYNs should play in the community?

A: If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t become an advocate earlier in my career. I believe it’s really important. I see how young faculty are advocating for reproductive health and reproduction rights, and working with community care partners, like Maternity Care Coalition or Woman’s Way. I applaud them.

I’ve become more involved with the March of Dimes – we’re one of their six Prematurity Research Centers in the world trying to identify the causes of premature birth. But I’ve also started working with their public policy committee to increase awareness and support their philanthropic goals.

We need to step up and be advocates for women’s health research and we need to do a much better job lobbying Congress – making them aware of the need for more funding for reproductive health research.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you about advocacy?

A: Find a cause that is meaningful to you, your work or your family. It doesn’t need to be in health care but it can be rewarding and empowering.

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