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ABQ Journal

Carrie Paxson, left, a labor and delivery nurse at Lovelace Women’s Hospital Birthing Center, assists new parents Paola and Eliceo E.J. Canastu with their son, Abbimael. About 300 babies are delivered there each month, says Sheri Milone, the hospital’s chief executive officer, not pictured. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

More than 30 years ago, Jeanne Thomas was a young doctor working at a hospital in San Francisco when the male attending surgeon took a breast cancer patient in for surgery in what seemed like hit-or-miss.

“Back then, they didn’t give women choices and women didn’t know if they’d wake up with their breast or not, which today sounds barbaric,” says Thomas, now a surgeon at Lovelace Women’s Hospital in Albuquerque.

In addition, the public is more aware of women’s health issues and women themselves are demanding that health-care organizations respond to their needs.

“I’ve been in practice 30 years, and they didn’t have a breast cancer awareness month back then,” says Thomas. “There are a number of breast care centers in the state, and I don’t think any of them were here 15 years ago.”

The fact that Lovelace has a Women’s Hospital, the only one in the state, speaks volumes about the emphasis on services geared to women.

Likewise, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and University of New Mexico Hospital have expanded services to women, and now far more high-tech diagnostic and treatment tools are available for women across the state.

And that’s not all. Far more women are choosing to play key roles in the field as physicians, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, to name a few.

Still, with all the progress made in women’s health care, access remains a problem, particularly in rural parts of the state, and especially among Hispanic and Native American women, says Dr. Cheryl Willman, CEO and director of the UNM Cancer Center.
 
The real challenge for health care in New Mexico is access, says Dr. Cheryl Willman, CEO and director of the UNM Cancer Center, which has established a statewide cancer network. “People are being diagnosed too late because they lack insurance and live far from providers.” (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

In addition, women remain under-represented nationwide in top leadership roles in hospitals, medical schools and health-care organizations, she says.

The decision-makers

When it comes to who chooses the health-care provider for a family, it’s more often women. That was a big factor in the rebranding of the Northeast Heights Medical Center in 2004 as Lovelace Women’s Hospital, says Sheri Milone, the hospital’s chief executive officer.

For that reason, the hospital’s look and feel — not just its services and programs — intentionally target women.

“Women look at things like the attitude of the providers, the look of the place, the color, the feel, how our employees and medical staff treat them,” Milone says. “Women are more in tune with that than men for whatever reason, so we designed Lovelace Women’s Hospital to be a place that women want to come back to for more services.”

The hospital’s obstetrics program is still its largest, offering birthing rooms that have a “home-like feel for delivery,” as well as water delivery options and natural birthing options. About 300 babies are delivered there each month, or about 3,600 a year, making it one of the largest birthing centers in New Mexico, Milone says.

The hospital also has a breast care center and is the only one to offer a micro vascular breast reconstruction procedure known as deep inferior epigastric perforator, or DIEP flap, which reshapes a new breast using fat and skin from the abdominal area while leaving the abdominal muscle intact.
The hospital is also building up its cardiology services for women in recognition that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

An expansion of services

Roundtable discussions with groups of women led Presbyterian to expand services to women based on what women themselves reported as “important to them in a hospital, important in a health plan and important in a physician’s practice,” says Dr. Tushar Dandade, medical director for women’s services at Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

In response, Presbyterian expanded its six community-based clinics to include specific services for women, essentially creating clinics within existing clinics. For example, Dandade says, the Rio Bravo clinic, which serves adults and children, has added specific services for pregnant as well as menopausal women. It is staffed by certified nurse midwives, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Most of the clinics as well as the women’s services offered there were added in the past 10 years.

Presbyterian’s women’s services include advanced specialties such as high-risk obstetrics, maternal fetal medicine, gynecologic oncology and reproductive endocrinology (fertility).

Better birthing care

The University of New Mexico has also responded to women’s health needs in practical ways, expanding the College of Nursing’s nurse midwifery program, for instance, and establishing a statewide cancer network through UNM Cancer Center.

That translates to more services available in more communities, which translates to lower health-care costs. New Mexico now has the highest percentage of midwife-attended vaginal births in the nation, according to nursing college program director Julie Gorwoda.

The cancer network means collaboration with community hospitals to make sure that women get screenings and referrals.

“The real challenge in New Mexico, for all types of cancer, men and women, is people are being diagnosed too late because they lack insurance and live far from providers,” Willman says.

The UNM Cancer Center sees about half of the state’s newly diagnosed breast cancer patients each year, slightly more than 500, as well as about 1,100 previously diagnosed women from the state.

The capacity to lead

While marked progress has been made in women’s health care, an area that continues to lag behind is the placement of women into the highest decision-making leadership roles in health care.
“I graduated from Mayo School of Medicine in 1981 and at the time maybe 15 percent of the graduating class were women,” says Willman. “Today, more women than men graduate from medical schools so at least half or more of doctors are women now.”

Despite that, Willman says less than 10 percent of full professorships at medical schools as well as other medical field leadership roles are filled by women.

Willman is one of the few exceptions.

“We’re really proud because we are one of the nation’s 62 top cancer centers, and of those only seven are run by women.”

Deanna Kyrimis, CEO of the Heart Institute, says her leadership role allows her to “bring a keen insight into the very well-known fact that women take care of themselves last. They focus on their loved ones before getting around to taking care of themselves.”

Because women are the primary drivers of healthcare decisions within the family, it’s important to get women information about maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle, knowing it will be transmitted to other family members, she adds.

“I’m in a good position to continue to support widespread healthcare access for all New Mexicans.”
 
That women are increasingly the key decision makes on heath care services was a big factor in the rebranding of the Northeast Heights Medical Center in 2004 as Lovelace Women’s Hospital, says chief executive officer Sheri Milone.

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