Making Health Care Count
How one physician uses her skills beyond the doctor's office
When Rita Louard, MD, FACE, was just a teenager, she reached out to kids in her community through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization—and saw that she could make a direct impact on other people's lives. It was a transformative experience, one that she quickly realized she wanted to relive as an adult. A developing interest in biochemistry led her to pursue a career as a doctor, which in turn has allowed Louard to continue helping people both within and outside of her day job.
"When you're doing clinical work, a lot of what you're doing is one-on-one, you and the patient, or you and the patient's family," says Louard. "There clearly is a need to impact beyond that, to look at how we deliver care to communities, at how we promote health in communities."
Louard, an endocrinologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., is the director of the clinical diabetes program there. She has directed other diabetes centers including the Diabetes Metabolic Support Center at the Atlanta Medical Center, Medical College of Georgia. However, in what Louard describes as a desire to achieve "balance" that led her to endocrinology in the first place, she pairs her professional endeavors with those that don't appear so prominently on the résumé: volunteer efforts that expand the idea of patient care.
"[I wanted to] explore more beyond my one-on-one relationships with patients," Louard says. "How do we increase prevention efforts and treatment options in various communities? I have worked with churches, typically the black church, to look at screening and educational materials that can be presented in that setting."
Louard's particular interest in helping ethnic minorities at higher risk for developing diabetes led to her serving on the American Diabetes Association's Inclusion Committee. "Inclusion is not just about ethnicity," Louard explains. "It's about gender, it's about sexual orientation, it's about age, it's about learning styles."
She herself has focused on the impact of diabetes on one community in particular: African Americans. Her work on cardiovascular health in African Americans landed her a National Medical Association JB Johnson Memorial Award in 2003.
In 2007, as a speaker at Delta Day at the United Nations—an event sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African American sorority, to shed light on issues affecting women and children—she had the opportunity to address UN members. "This was an exciting venue in which to discuss diabetes," she recalls. "I got to talk to a group about what we can do to promote health within our communities. [This is] something that has the ability to touch more than just the people in the room."
To Louard, advocacy is part of the job of a health care provider. "It's incumbent on all of us to find ways to interact with political figures, to work within our health care organizations. … For some people, it can be as simple as going out and giving talks when asked," Louard says. "Having the voice of someone actually in the trenches, who knows the issues that patients and communities are facing, puts a human face on what politicians and courts can do for people with diabetes." Another venue she sees as key: serving as an advisor or editor for health industry and consumer health publications. "Editorial boards allow you to help with publications that are going out [and educating people about diabetes]," Louard says. "That's an important part of getting information into a community."
But she equally stresses that fighting diabetes is not just the responsibility of health care providers. It's the job of individuals and communities, as well. "Families that are affected by diabetes also have a very important role to play here," Louard says, "particularly ethnic communities just because of the challenges and increased incidence of type 2. We have opportunities to talk to each other, talk to our faith communities, talk to our political leaders about how we promote health within our communities."
And when it comes to talking with political leaders, she notes, you don't have to be a health care professional to know what your community needs. "Advocacy is not just about things that directly relate to the health care industry," Louard says. "It can be getting more sidewalks in your community, getting parks in your community, and getting after-school programs that promote activity for your youth." Regardless of the type of activity, the involvement is what's key. "We all do have some responsibility to advocate for what we believe in, and people with diabetes and their families have a particular interest in making things better for them and for the next generation."
Rita Louard, MD, FACE, offers tips on how you can fight diabetes in your community
Write to your member of Congress. "There are tremendous opportunities to partner with people who are doing advocacy efforts on a local and national level," Louard says. "It's important to know who your politicians are and to be able to advocate for your community to those politicians."
Look for specific needs in your community. That could mean putting in a park, fixing up the sidewalks, or promoting after-school sports and activities for youth.
Walk for diabetes. Just get out there and get some exercise. Even better—do it at Step Out: Walk to Fight Diabetes, ADA's major fundraising event.
Share your story. "[We need] many ambassadors to go into communities to talk about healthy eating, the importance of exercise, importance of ABCs of diabetes, talking to
health care providers, and asking the questions you need to ask," Louard says. "It's nice to have health care providers be actively involved, but sometimes people hear
[information] better from people affected by the disease."