Trailblazer Barbara Ross-Lee breaks ground as dean of new medical school

Barbara Ross-Lee 2
Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., has been breaking new ground throughout her medical career.

Trailblazer is a good word to describe Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O. 

Barbara Ross-Lee 1
Barbara Ross-Lee

When she became a doctor in the 1970s, she was one of the few African-American women in a field dominated by white males. She was the first African-American woman to lead a U.S medical school—Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. And now she has helped make a new medical school in Arkansas a reality.

She is dean of the new college of osteopathic medicine that opened on the campus of Arkansas State University last August that state leaders there hope will help solve a physician shortage, particularly of primary care doctors. The school is training about 118 medical students, who leaders hope will stay and practice medicine in the area.

“Our goal is to educate students from Arkansas for Arkansas as well as the other Delta states,” says Lee-Ross in an exclusive interview with FiercePracticeManagement. The medical school is very personal for Arkansas residents because the state has such a central need for physicians and officials they have tried every strategy they could think of to recruit physicians to the state. They think the solution is to educate their own students, she says.

About 48% of the students in the first class are from Arkansas and about 98% are either from Arkansas or another Delta state.

“It’s kind of an experiment,” says Ross-Lee, who grew up in Detroit along with her famous younger sister, the pop singer Diana Ross. The school is a public-private partnership between Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. The private school leases a building on the state university’s campus.

Arkansas has been characterized as the second sickest state in the country, but while the need for medical care is great, it has the third fewest physicians per capita. Like other states, it has turned to new strategies to address a severe physician shortage.

Related: States adopt strategies to counter severe doctor shortages

“It’s been a unique experience for me,” says Ross-Lee. Typically when a school tries to set up a new educational program it has to build support. But in Arkansas, leaders became involved in the planning process and there is great commitment to the medical school—only the second medical school in the state.

It’s Ross-Lee's third stint leading a medical school and she’s no stranger to meeting challenges.

A career as a doctor

Ross-Lee was born and raised in the housing projects of Detroit, along with her sister. She was discouraged from pursuing a career in medicine and instead became a teacher. She was the only one from her family to graduate from college. But she felt she could do more and took what might be considered a bold step. As a divorced woman with two babies at home, she enrolled in medical school at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She moved in with her mother who helped take care of the kids while she went to classes and she graduated with her D.O. in 1973.

“The Civil Rights movement made it possible for me to go to medical school,” she says, recalling how she told the dean of the medical school that if he let her in, she would make it through and graduate.

“Education is the ticket that give you an opportunity,” she said. At the time she became a doctor, there were few women in the field and even fewer black physicians. “I didn’t see a black osteopathic physician until I was in my third year of medical school,” she says.

While almost 50% of every medical school are now made up of women, minorities are still lagging consistently in the medical field, she says. Only 4% of physicians are African American, and that shrinks to only 2% when it comes to African American women.

Black doctors still face challenges and sometimes the biggest obstacle is just getting recognized by patients as a physician. Ross-Lee says it wasn’t easy being a trailblazer, but she took a practical approach.

“I had no options. I had to learn how to achieve my objectives in an environment that was not always friendly and sometimes hostile,” she says.  Her attitude? It’s important to recognize where the challenges are and not let them stand in the way of what you want to accomplish, she says.

A medical school leader

Ross-Lee was a family practitioner in Detroit and then took a number of positions before she became a medical school dean in 1993. She said she didn’t realize that she was the first African-American woman to take on that role until after she accepted the job. Given it was the 1990s, she said she was surprised that it took that long to break that glass ceiling.

She has been happy to combine her two loves—medicine and teaching. She is proud that all of her five children, as well as all her nieces and nephews, have graduated from college. Her children have pursued careers as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, social worker and medical device salesman.

It’s up to the leaders of the country’s medical schools to increase diversity in medicine, she says. Instead of just looking at test scores, medical school deans need to ask whether a student believes he or she will be successful in medical school.

“It’s amazing to watch these young people prepare themselves for the future. There’s still lots of work to be done,” she says. But without a workforce with enough doctors, it will be impossible to increase access and quality of health and wellness. “I feel like I’m on the right side,” she says.