newsmaker: Gloria A. Bachman, MD
Parade magazine, Parents magazine
Winning Attention for Women's Issues
by Maryann B. Brinley
Standing in the spotlight with United States Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, MD, MPH, FACS, last December 9 was only natural for Gloria A. Bachmann, MD, director of the Women's Health Institute (WHI) at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS). "I like being the center of attention when it's the message I'm delivering that is at the center, not just me," she explains. And this was a case when her message had been recognized as a cutting edge research issue for women as well as men.
By 2020, one in two Americans over age 50 will be at risk for fractures from osteoporosis, or low bone mass, if immediate action isn't taken by individuals at risk, doctors, health systems and policymakers. Bachmann had recently published a study on osteoporosis education, as well as producing a companion video, which had been recognized as one of the best by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). For Carmona, who had just issued the first-ever report on osteoporosis, bone health is a big deal. She joined him at a meeting in New York City that was geared to educate magazine editors about this problem and why it deserved attention in their periodicals.
In a research study, Bachmann had discovered that all it took was a brief education video shown to women while they waited in a doctor's office to make a statistically significant difference in their calcium habits - a fact that was confirmed when the women were contacted three months after viewing the video. The power of this "teachable moment" reminding women of the importance of supplements couldn't be lost on the millions of Americans who need adequate calcium to prevent osteoporosis. And it was up to Bachmann to make her case newsworthy. Yet, for this professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, "The most memorable part of the conference was spending time with the writers who report the news and discussing pressing health care issues as well as the need for more patient friendly educational ventures."
The osteoporosis crisis is just the latest newsmaking experience in Bachmann's 25-year career championing women's health rights. Name any hot topic in gender specific medicine, particularly in peri-and post-menopause, and you're apt to find her opinion and her expertise. Her insider's take on the controversy about hormonal therapy, which surrounded the NIH Women's Health Initiative clinical trial, helped put that issue into calm perspective in one media crisis in the summer of 2002. Just recently in Parade magazine, a weekly Sunday supplement which reaches about 76 million readers, she pooh-poohed stereotypes about women and age. "Today, a woman at menopause is still very sexy, very vital and definitely not old," she told the reporter. Last fall, her advice for women worried about likely causes of spotting and mid-cycle bleeding landed in Parents magazine, with a readership of 14 million.
Bachmann's career has dovetailed perfectly with the growing focus on women's health. After earning her BA from Rutgers and MMS from Rutgers Medical School (now Robert Wood Johnson Medical School) in 1972, she went to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her medical education. "What brought me back to New Jersey were the teaching and research opportunities as well as loyalty to my state and alma mater. There was so much encouragement and support for starting the scientific study of women's health here." That was in 1978. "There just wasn't enough research into women's health." Not only were women being left out of educational and research areas but they were also missing from public and healthcare policies. After Bachmann became a member of the RWJMS faculty, she quickly took on the role of champion for women. "I was very lucky to be working with marvelous people, to be part of the UMDNJ team."
By the time the Institute was established in 2000, the job of director could fit no one else but her. Highly visible in media and medical circles, she had been writing, speaking and clinically caring for women for years. Female physicians like Bachmann have "echoed the demands of the baby boomers," she says. "The trend toward gender specific medicine has led to research that opens up women's lives, leading to reliable family planning methods and the means to surmount the barriers of infertility. Women are no longer expected to sweat out menopause. And 50 no longer marks the end of a woman's health and sexuality. In fact, we have extended by several decades Gloria Steinem's declaration, 'Life begins at 40!'"
Along the way, Bachmann has also been winning numerous awards, from the Best Scientific Paper presented at the Annual ACOG meeting in 1990, to plaques and certificates with titles like Lifetime Achievement...Best Teacher...Best Educator... and Community Service. "Since I'm a teacher at heart, my most memorable moments are with students. This year, I am most proud of being chosen by our senior medical students to be the faculty member invited into Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society (AOA). I am strongly committed to community outreach so another special moment for me recently was being honored by Women Helping Women."
Bachmann makes it all look easy with statements like "I just love what I do." Yet, her 25 year journey in a male dominated medical world has taken her through an era when women's health issues were seriously neglected and society took a complacent attitude toward women. There isn't a hint of anger or frustration in her approach to medicine. How did she stand it? What are the secrets of her success and uncomplicated appreciation for her current newsmaker status?
"Let me tell you about my parents, especially my mother," she says. Bachmann grew up with two brothers, an older and a younger. "There was never any emphasis on being a boy or me being a girl. They never said to me, 'Oh, you're a girl, so you can't do that.' What they emphasized was to follow my own dream and not to pick the lowest apple on the tree. Reach for the highest one and never give up your dream." Bachmann's mother is deceased now but there are mantras from her parental repertoire, including lines from the poet Emily Dickinson, which play repeatedly in this daughter's head.
At times of disappointment, "My mother would say, 'Just keep looking forward. Don't look back. If something doesn't go your way, don't pound your chest.'" A line from a Dickinson poem also stands out. "'Why should I dwell on things that I can change no more. The past is but the past.' I think this is the attitude I brought into medicine at a time when there weren't very many women and I could have been unhappy about it. My gosh, I just saw the potential." And what a potential Gloria Bachmann has realized.