Leading Change In Women's Health

janice werbinski

Dr. Werbinski has long been a passionate advocate for women's health as well as female healthcare professionals. But, she admits, she wasn't always so confident in her calling.

As a young medical student, Dr. Werbinski understood the long hours and grueling schedules required of OB/GYNs. "I tried very hard to find another field which sparked my interest and passion. But I just kept going back to the way I felt when doing my medical student training in OB/GYN — excited and inquisitive and wanting to learn more." Dr. Werbinski credits two female mentors who inspired her to continue pursuing her passion. "They showed me that a woman could not only do it, but do it well."

Like most members of her profession at the time, Dr. Werbinski believed that her success as an OB/GYN could come only at a great personal sacrifice. She recalls, "I thought it would be impossible to balance a family with this particular career. I wanted it so badly, that I initially decided I wouldn't have children." Fortunately for Dr. Werbinski's two daughters, she discovered that with the right support, women can indeed balance their careers with their families. "I call this the 'feminization' of medicine — the change in status quo when women enter the field."

Challenging the status quo has been the hallmark of Dr. Werbinski's impressive career. As a physician and an educator, she has questioned not only the often dismissive approach to women's health concerns, but the training residents receive. She has always felt, in her "intuitional gut," that a lot of what residents are taught about women's health is misguided, since it is based on research that has excluded women in the past.

If you could say one thing to women working in healthcare, what would it be?

"Follow your passions. Try to work in an area in which you are passionate and have fun as well as create a feeling of accomplishment. Find time in each day for yourself."

— Janice Werbinski, MD, FACOG

She sites a number of examples, including chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia pain, premenstrual syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by victims of sexual trauma and domestic violence. Once overlooked or, even worse, dismissed as psychosomatic, these and other disorders specific to women are now substantiated as very real conditions backed by very real clinical data.

In response to these gaps in resident training, Dr. Werbinski created curricula covering women's health issues beyond OB/GYN for internal medicine residents. And in fact, a description of one of her groundbreaking curricula was published by the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association and included in a time capsule buried at the National Institutes of Health.

Explains Dr. Werbinski, "I actually believe we should create an entire specialty in Women's Health similar to Pediatrics for children." She sees gender-specific curricula as important first steps in this direction — a step which she is leading. As the recently appointed chair of the American Medical Women's Association's "Women's Health Working Group," she is playing a key role in creating a web-based gender-specific curriculum accessible to all 125 medical schools in the U.S.

While leading change in medical education, Dr. Werbinski has joined the growing number of women taking on leadership roles in the medical profession. Earlier in her career, she ran a PMS clinic and performed OB/GYN services as the Medical Director of a Women's Center. Today, Dr. Werbinski is the Medical Director of Borgess Women's Health in Kalamazoo, MI, where she directs a 20-member provider group and is spearheading several new programs, including an innovative collaboration to advance minimally invasive treatments of uterine fibroids which impact the lives of so many women.

Over the course of her career, she has helped women increase their access to healthcare services for a broad range of medical issues — from family planning, to treatment for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, to menopausal conditions. And while she's seen progress in the area of female health, she'd like to see even more — including affordable quality insurance for underserved women, more federally funded research into conditions that impact women, and equity for women working in healthcare.

"I think it's the old adage, which I wish wasn't true, but I certainly feel I had to live: 'A woman has to be twice as good as a man to be considered half as good.'" Dr. Werbinski recalls that her generation of female medical students were sometimes denigrated for taking spots otherwise filled by men who would not abandon their careers for their families. While this misperception has diminished, women still feel pressure to prove their commitment to their careers, often at the expense of their personal lives.

Despite the challenges and obstacles she has encountered as a woman in a male-dominated field, Dr. Werbinski loves what she does. She loves playing the part of "medical detective, delving into a problem and devising a plan which ultimately helps a patient."

And despite the pressure to be "twice as good" at her job than her male counterparts, Dr. Werbinski has come to an important realization: "I am pretty good at what I do." This modest admission doesn't quite do justice to Dr. Werbinski's acumen as a leading-edge surgeon. Since being co-surgeon for the first laparoscopic laser cholecystectomy in Kalamazoo in 1991, she has continued to advance the use of laparoscopic surgery for female patients. And in 2004, she performed Kalamazoo's first laparoscopic hysterectomy, which was webcasted nationally.

Of her many patients, students and colleagues, perhaps Dr. Werbinski's most vocal admirers are her daughters — who are living proof that women can balance their professions, passions and personal lives.

"In spite of working very hard and many hours in my career, I have two daughters who are happy, well-balanced, independent and accomplished. The most gratifying compliment I have ever received was when my 26-year-old daughter asked me what techniques I used to raise her and her sister, since she wants her children to grow up 'just like we did, Mom.'"

Medelita recognizes and celebrates the progress Dr. Janice Werbinski has inspired in her field, and in her own life. She is truly a role model to all women working in healthcare.