A Physician for All Ages
By Karen Young Kreeger
In high school, a friend of Karen Barnes Mitchell '83 came across a brochure describing the educational programs at Bryn Mawr and sent in the request-for-information postcard with Mitchell’s name on it. “The first time I heard about Bryn Mawr was when I opened up a packet that read, ‘Here’s the information you requested,’” recalls Mitchell. “My friend hit it right on. Bryn Mawr had what I was really interested in — science and music.”
At first, says Mitchell, it was the strength of the science program that attracted her to Bryn Mawr — not that it was women’s college, an advantage that she later came to appreciate. Although Mitchell was raised in a family “where gender didn’t really matter,” the atmosphere at Bryn Mawr did help her later on in her career, she realizes now.
Mitchell, who lives and works in her hometown outside Detroit, has used the strong foundation that Bryn Mawr gave her to successfully blend an active professional and home life. Whether seeing patients in her family physician practice, directing the handbell choir at church, juggling her sons’ after-school schedules with her pediatrician husband, or explaining the importance of childhood immunizations to a politician, Mitchell credits her certainty to tackle whatever “I felt that I wanted to do” in part to her years at Bryn Mawr as well as to a supportive family.
After medical school at Wayne State University, Mitchell completed three years of family practice residency at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich. She stayed on at Providence’s family practice and, in 2002, was promoted to associate residency director. In this role, Mitchell designs new family-practice curricula and comes up with ways to reduce residents’ stress and working hours, a topic of current national concern.
“We’ve had to make sure that when residents are done with their shift, they get at least 10 hours of rest time,” Mitchell explains. But this also meant juggling the schedule of more experienced residents to ensure that a senior resident was always available in the hospital.
Caring and Volunteering
For Mitchell, placing importance on the whole person figures prominently throughout her education and medical career. Her choice of family medicine as a specialty speaks to this. “In family medicine we care for all ages, with an emphasis on disease prevention and health promotion,” Mitchell says. “What attracted me to family medicine is that I feel this path is how I can be the most effective in my patients’ lives.”
Professional and community volunteering is also part of Mitchell’s integrative approach to her career. She holds several state and national level advisory positions, “because that’s part of the balance, too,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell is in the second year of a five-year term on the American Board of Family Practice, a national certifying body for family physicians that comprises family physicians and physicians from other specialties. One of the board’s main tasks is to institute a maintenance certification program for family physicians, which promotes physician involvement in continuing education and improvement of quality health care.
Mitchell derives much satisfaction from the role that her volunteer positions afford her in promoting preventive medicine. She chairs the Michigan Advisory Committee on Immunizations, which works directly with the Michigan Department of Community Health, and has been a committee member since its start in 1992.
“Immunizations are one of my areas of expertise, so this fits right in with my goals,” Mitchell says. “Michigan is facing challenges similar to other states in trying to increase immunization rates in the face of huge state deficits and federal funding cutbacks.” In 1994, Michigan was last of all 50 states in the nation for immunization rates. Working on a number of fronts and taking direction from the advisory committee since then, Michigan now ranks sixth in the nation in immunization rates for children.
The most significant factor contributing to the huge improvement that the state and advisory committee could identify is a new computerized statewide immunization registry. “The registry has greatly increased the ability for physicians to know what shots kids have and have not gotten,” Mitchell explains. “That’s been a wonderful effort.” One-on-one meetings with physicians and nurses and a statewide peer education program have also contributed.
Mitchell is also a political advocate. As past president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians and a representative from Michigan to the American Academy of Family Physicians, Mitchell spends a fair amount of time communicating with state and national legislators about preventive-medicine issues, such as promoting health care for disadvantaged people, and the health needs of different communities.
“My years at Bryn Mawr boosted my self esteem, and that is what really has paid off for me to be able to make a difference in the year that followed,” Mitchell concludes. “Volunteering and political advocacy is what’s important.”
Mitchell’s Bryn Mawr experience has given her the insight to see that what happens in society as a whole is connected. “I think that’s part of the beauty of a liberal arts education,” she says.
Karen Young Kreeger is a science journalist who writes on biomedical and women’s health topics, as well as careers in science. Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience, Genome Technology, Muse and The Scientist.