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More women are reaching leadership positions and are comfortable enough to support other women

As a career physician-scientist, pediatrician and neonatologist who has devoted her entire career to the underserved, Dr. J. Usha Raj, a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Illinois continue her efforts to give back to the community, a legacy she learned from her mother.

Like many women, Dr. Raj was greatly influenced by her mother, whom she described as having lived a true Christian life; always thinking about others, selflessly taking care of her family and others, and giving away her material possessions. "She instilled in me the notion that 'To those who much has been given much is expected' and I feel very blessed in my life and feel I must give back in any way that I can" she said.

Serving the underserved
After training as a pediatrician in a children's hospital in Bombay serving mainly poor children, Dr. Raj came to the United States to further her training in Neonatology, a specialty that had not been developed in India. To her surprise, she realized that there was a lot of poverty in America, too, especially among children. Currently, one in five children in the U.S., or 15.5 million, live below the poverty line, according to the Children's Defense Fund, an American non-profit organization that focuses on child advocacy and research; and, as the graph illustrates, there are sharp disparities between ethnicities. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that children in America experience higher rates of poverty than in most developed countries. In every category, from emotional well-being and health status to education and hunger, American children fall at the bottom for all western countries. "As a physician, I have felt compelled to do the most that I can to improve the health and well-being of children in the US using the talents that I possess and the opportunities I can create," she stressed. So, the Indian trained doctor took on the role to serve American children.

Taking the challenge
Moving from UCLA to run the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2008, Dr. Raj made a commitment to establish an outstanding Department of Pediatrics and create a Children's Hospital within the hospital of UIC that would prioritize the care of the underserved children. "The tag line for our hospital would be: 'We serve the under-served," she said. Soon, Dr. Raj recruited 50 new faculty from around the country ready and committed to this mission. By 2013, she had transformed the department and created a vibrant children's hospital where all Medicaid children would be seen by specialists within a few days. Now, the dedicated team of physicians cares for over 10,000 children each year with 44,000 outpatient visits and 3,881 admissions. More than 80% of the children treated at the Children's Hospital University of Illinois are underserved children in need of good care. Dr. Raj stepped down as head of the hospital in 2015 but continues to work as a full-time professor and research scientist in the College of Medicine, with some time devoted to teaching and fund-raising for the Children's Hospital. "I feel most satisfied by this achievement in my life," she said. Dr. Raj considers this hospital her legacy. She has received numerous awards for her work as a researcher in understanding the disease of Pulmonary Hypertension, a disease that affects all ages and is lethal, from International Scientific Societies, including the Scientific Recognition Award, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Thoracic Society, the Julius Comroe Jr. Distinguished Lectureship, and election as a fellow to the American Physiological Society. She is continuing her work in understanding the pathobiology of Pulmonary Hypertension, a disease that affects all ages and is lethal, work that has been continuously funded by National Institutes of Health for over 34 years.

Continuing the legacy
Recently she joined the advisory board of A Safe Haven Foundation, an organization that provides shelter, retraining, and job placement for people experiencing homelessness, as well as rehabilitation for physical and mental health issues. She is a founding member of the Friends of UIC Pediatrics – the fundraising arm of the Children's Hospital – and a member of the board for Woman Made Gallery, an art gallery that supports and showcases women artists from the Midwest. "I continue to give back to the community by helping raise the awareness of these organizations and by fundraising for them," she stressed.

Working to promote gender equality and equity
Throughout her academic career, Dr. Raj has worked on issues related to gender equality and equity, as well as racial equality. "Unfortunately, to date, very little has changed for women," she says. As a department head at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, Dr. Raj was one of only two women among 23 department heads. At the time, only 13% of department heads in all colleges of medicine in the country were women, and only 20% of pediatric department heads were women. "This last statistic is particularly distressing when one realizes that close to 70% of pediatricians are women," she elaborated. Realizing this gap, Dr. Raj, embarked on a mission to hire women to lead the divisions within the department. She mentors women and professionals of color from across the country in their careers and is always advocating for women. She is a member of two women's associations, the International Women's Forum, and the International Women's Associates. She also recently joined the WHAMglobal Board of Trustees to advance initiatives to improve maternal health outcomes for mothers in the U.S.

Women assuming leadership positions

Dr. Raj continues to be disturbed by the fact that the world of academic medicine continues to be a bastion of white men. However, she pointed out that the past 35 years have shown steady progress with more women assuming leadership positions, although there is still much more work to be done. Unless the work environment changes to support the desires of women to have a family and children, the progress will continue to be slow. She also noted that while in many European countries men are taking a much more active role in raising children and both the mother and father are given paid time off to care fora newborn, very rarely does this occur in the U.S. "We need to make some changes to support women with children," she stressed. Today as a professor, Dr. Raj takes a major interest in education and mentoring, particularly students and faculty from under-represented minorities.

Women supporting women
Dr. Raj emphasized that she was very lucky to have great mentors in the early stages of her career. They were giants in their fields. "As it turned out, all of them were men," she added. She explained how that was a time when there were very few women leaders, and the few that existed were not very supportive of other women. "But that has changed, and more and more women are reaching leadership positions and are comfortable enough to support other women. We must keep working on this as much work is still to be done," she urged.

This Forum is an initiative of the Women's Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal), a supporting organization of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in Pittsburgh. WHAMglobal is committed to profiling members of WHAMglobal, the International Women's Forum (IWF) special interest group on health care, and Women of Impact for Healthcare. Through the Spotlight Forum, we will share members' inspiring stories and accomplishments, identify common interests, and form new partnerships that help make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, and more compassionate.

Questions? Ideas? Want to share your story?

Contact Hanifa Nakiryowa, Global Health Associate: nakiryowa@JHF.org 

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Thursday, December 05, 2019