February 25, 2010

RECOGNIZING LEADING AFRICAN AMERICAN MARYLANDERS IN AMERICAN MEDICINE

I rise today on the occasion of Black History Month to recognize the accomplishments of three leading Marylanders in American medicine.  Established by Howard University historian Carter G. Woodson in 1927 as Black History Week, this now month-long celebration is an opportunity to elevate awareness of Black Americans' contributions to our nation's  history.  

 

It is customary for American families to spend time in February learning more about famous Black Americans who helped shape our nation, including Marylanders Harriet Ross Tubman, the "Moses of her people," who ran the Underground Railroad, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice and the architect of the legal strategy leading to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.  

 

Today, I come to the Senate floor to highlight the contributions of three Marylanders who are currently at the pinnacle of the medical profession-Dr. Ben Carson, Dr. Eve Higginbotham, and Dr. Donald Wilson.     

 

I have spoken before on the crushing burden of health disparities on our health care system and the urgent need to eliminate them.  It is an issue directly affecting one out of every three Americans: 37 million African Americans, 47 million Latinos (47 million), 13 million Asian Americans, 2.3 million Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, and 400,000 Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in our Nation. While minorities represent one-third of our Nation's population, they are fully one-half of the uninsured. So when we enact legislation that expands access to millions of uninsured Americans, it will make a difference in minority communities, in minority health overall, and in the health of our Nation.

 

But providing access to comprehensive health insurance addresses only one of the factors contributing to health disparities.    Research informs us that even after accounting for those who lack health insurance, minority racial and ethnic groups face inequities in access and treatment; and they have adverse health care outcomes at higher rates than whites. Even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable, racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive lower quality health care.  Therefore, coverage is not enough.

 

Despite many attempts over the years by health policymakers, providers, researchers, and others, wide disparities still persist in many facets of health care. When it comes to equitable care for minorities, low income, geographic, cultural and language barriers, and racial bias have been found to exist. This carries a high cost of efficiency and costs our Nation billions of dollars each year. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland found that between 2003 and 2006, racial and ethnic disparities cost the Nation more than $229 billion in excess direct medical costs. Adding indirect costs reveals a staggering $1.24 trillion from lost wages and premature and preventable deaths.

 

We can bring down the costs and improve the quality of care across the board. If we are to improve health care status of Americans, we must focus on, and eliminate these disparities. One step is ensuring that every community has a sufficient supply of well-trained medical professionals, and this is where our nation's academic medical centers play an essential role.  All three physicians-Drs. Carson, Higginbotham, and Wilson, shine as leaders in the medical profession and have devoted their careers to academic medicine.

 

First is Dr. Benjamin Carson, a world renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who works daily to save and improve the lives of children as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Dr. Carson's story is truly inspiring.  He was born and raised in Detroit by a mother who encouraged Ben and his brother to work hard and succeed in school.  Dr. Carson graduated high school with honors and was admitted to Yale University to study psychology.  He attended the University of Michigan Medical School.  Dr. Carson completed his neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he became the youngest physician ever to head a major division there.  Dr. Carson has surgically separated several pairs of conjoined twins and has pioneered new, groundbreaking procedures to save children's lives. Most notable among Dr. Carson's numerous accolades and honors is the Presidential Medal of Freedom-the nation's highest civilian award-which he received in 2008.    

 

In addition to his surgical acumen, he is president and co-founder of the Carson Scholars Fund. He is also president and cofounder of the Benevolent Endowment Network Fund, an organization that works to cover the medical expenses of pediatric neurosurgery patients with complex medical conditions.

 

Second, I want to recognize Dr. Eve Higginbotham, a physician who was recently appointed Senior Vice President and Executive Dean for Health Sciences at Howard University.   Dr. Higginbotham was the first woman to chair a university-based ophthalmology department in the United States, and she held this position at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, from 1994 until 2006.  Her next appointment was as the Dean and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

 

Dr. Higginbotham is a frontline warrior in the fight to eliminate health disparities.  As a member of the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation, she developed a glaucoma screening training program that has been implemented in more than 40 medical schools nationwide.  Through this program, medical students provide glaucoma screenings to elderly residents in underserved communities, making possible early detection and treatment for the leading cause of blindness among African-Americans.

 

Dr. Higginbotham was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  She has served on the Boards of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Women in Ophthalmology, and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.  She is also a past president of the Baltimore City Medical Society and the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons.   

 

Finally, I wish to recognize Dr. Donald Wilson, who was Dr. Higginbotham's immediate predecessor at Howard University.  Dr. Wilson served as Dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine from 1991 until 2006.  The University of Maryland's medical research funding increased nearly five-fold, from $77 million to $341 million, during Dr. Wilson's leadership. His tenure at Maryland distinguished him as the nation's first African-American dean of a non-minority medical school.  While at the University of Maryland, Dr. Wilson also served as the director of the Program in Minority Health and Health Disparities Education and Research. 

 

Dr. Wilson has also chaired federal health committees at the NIH and the FDA, as well as serving on the advisory council for HHS's Agency for Health Care Policy and Research.  He was chairman of both the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Council of Deans of U.S. Medical Schools, and he was the first African-American to hold each of these positions.  He is a member of several medical and research societies, including the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and the Association of American Physicians. He is a master of the American College of Physicians, an honor bestowed on fewer than one percent of its members.  Dr. Wilson also co-founded the Association for Academic Minority Physicians in 1986.

 

Numerous honors and awards have been bestowed upon Dr. Wilson.  In 2003, he received the prestigious Frederick Douglass Award from the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.  Dr. Wilson is also the recipient of the Institutional Leadership Diversity Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Student Affairs-Minority Affairs Section.

 

Drs. Carson, Higginbotham, and Wilson are three living reasons why we celebrate Black History Month.  They have made invaluable contributions to American medicine, but they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of African Americans who have made a noteworthy impact upon our nation.  I ask my colleagues to join me in recognizing the contributions of these three noteworthy physicians as this body seeks to make health care available to everyone; and join me in celebrating their accomplishments during Black History Month.