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Vol. LXII, No. 46
 
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
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All in a Day’s Work

(Photo by Dilshanie Perera)
DOCTOR-PHILANTHROPIST: President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Risa Lavizzo-Mourey has a multifaceted approach to healthcare in the United States.

Dilshanie Perera

Named among the top 25 of Forbes Magazine’s “World’s Most Powerful Women,” Doctor Risa Lavizzo-Mourey heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a national philanthropic organization focused on improving health and healthcare for all Americans. With a $10 billion endowment, the foundation has specific programs targeted at concerns like childhood obesity, as well as long-term goals like developing community leaders and effecting policy change.

“I grew up in a medical family, and both of my parents are physicians, so I always saw myself as having a career in medicine,” Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey explained, adding, “As I got committed to pursuing medicine, I began to realize that there was much more to it than whether or not people were living healthy lives.”

“Health policy, health economics, prevention, educational opportunities — there are a number of social factors connected to health,” observed Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey, who has gone to both medical school (Harvard) and business school (Wharton), completed a medical residency and internship, specialized in geriatric care, served as deputy administrator for what is now the federal Agency for Health Care Quality, and is currently the first woman and African American to be the CEO and President of RWJF.

“One of the things that’s gratifying is that we can stick with initiatives long enough to be able to see their benefits in such a dramatic and human way,” said Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey, regarding organizations and programs that RWJF has assisted.

In one hospital, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey reported that it was found that “the level of care provided to Latino patients after a heart attack was not as good as that provided to patients who were white.” After collecting data, it was found that “the same kind of language services weren’t available at the hospital, and the post heart attack care materials were all in English.” By making the documents available in Spanish and providing translators, they were able to “narrow that disparity in care.”

“There’s a program called the Nurse-Family Partnership that connects nurses to first-time mothers, who are often single mothers,” she explained. “Over a two year period, the program educates and mentors these young women about parenting.” The sustained interaction “makes a meaningful change in the lives of the young mothers and babies” said Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey, for whom social change on both large and small scales is a central goal.

The foundation’s scope includes “individual behavioral changes and policy changes,” and to act as a “convener in a bipartisan sense” is what Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey sees as the role of the foundation “in large debates about healthcare reform.” She elaborated, “Policy makers and stakeholders have to make really difficult decisions, and we want to make sure they have objective, high-quality information that can inform the debate so they can come to a consensus on what the best policy is.” Explaining that “any large social change that requires that kind of policy action has to be bipartisan,” she said that the foundation’s “comparative advantage” is that they get to “stick with an issue for a long time.”

Being “at the cutting edge of new fields,” is another key goal. “A lot of people enjoy playing video games,” Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey remarked, noting that “video games can be used to improve the health of people.”

“Most people don’t think of them as having a healthcare use,” but such games can be developed to “teach a person about their chronic disease, or to help them get exercise, which we see in some of the popular games like the Wii,” she explained. “Assisting in rehabilitation, improving cognitive focus,” and training health professionals using video games “to simulate conditions they might see in their professional lives” are other possibilities.

“There are so many problems out there that we can devote our potential to, but we have to pick the ones that we can have an impact on in a sustained way,” said Ms. Lavizzo-Mourey, adding that “the challenge for all philanthropy really, is to do our work wisely.”

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