News Column

Amelie Ramirez: Public Health Pioneer

April Issue


Amelie Ramirez, public health, epidemiology biostatistics, University of Texas
Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH,

Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH, is a public health pioneer, but that should come as no surprise for a woman who has been breaking stereotypes and demanding equality for decades.

She gives much of the credit to her work ethic. As a young career woman in the 1970s, she worked until the day her first child was due -- and was back on the job less than a month later. Since, she has steadily risen through the ranks and is now a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and the Director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

That position allows her to battle for the rights of women and underserved populations in the public health arena, and, in doing so, she has become an inspiration to other women.

"I've devoted myself over the past three decades -- in research, community outreach, mentorship, and speaking engagements -- to try to eliminate health disparities," said Dr. Ramirez, who is one of the 25 women being honored by HispanicBusiness Magazine.

About 16 percent of the nation's overall population has no health insurance coverage. For Hispanics, the figure is 34 percent. Such health disparities in the U.S. are what fuel Dr. Ramirez's passion for change.

In her field, reducing and preventing cancer and obesity among Hispanic adults and children are at the top of her list of priorities, along with boosting access to quality health care. Her chief tool in doing so? Education, which the 57-year-old called essential to changing consumption habits and encouraging early cancer screenings.

Family's Support Was Key
"Prevention is the key," Dr. Ramirez explained, "and timely diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care are critical if our community is to survive a cancer diagnosis and sustain a good quality of life."

She credits her own story of success to her childhood and the influence of her mother. Without her family's support she could not have accomplished anything.

Indeed, she indicated that the hardest part of her time-intensive work is that it sometimes interferes with family life. However, the research she's doing has important implications.

"We aren't doing research for the purpose of doing research," she said. "We are doing research that engages community members in order to improve their health and help them make better health choices."

Dr. Ramirez attacks health disparity from several fronts, including the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade, and Susan G. Komen For the Cure, for which she is the National Hispanic/Latino Advisory Council Chair.

Her strategy is clear: "Breaking down barriers so that our community can learn how to properly reduce its risk of developing cancer; helping our community obtain very needed preventative cancer screenings; and reducing the fear of knowing that we might have cancer."

Unfortunately, directly involving and engaging the community like this is expensive and the recessionary economic environment is proving to be a challenge.

"Research funding from the National Institutes of Health has dropped significantly," Dr. Ramirez told HispanicBusiness Magazine, "and it's a drop that has impacted researchers and research institutions across the country. I feel that cancer prevention and outreach research has been hit hard. It's not easy to develop cancer research activities that have the ability to change behaviors and impact people at a culturally specific level."

Studies Should Be Sustainable
She emphasized that such studies are time- and resource-intensive and must be sustained over a period of time to make a difference.

"It doesn't make sense to study a community or implement an intervention in a community and just leave once the program or study is finished. Successful programs and interventions should be sustainable, and that's what we strive to do at the Institute for Health Promotion Research."

Dr. Ramirez emphasized that in addition to financing, more human help in the health battle is definitely welcome.

"We need far more Latino men and women in health professions," she said. "Just as cancer disparities exist for Latinos/Hispanics and other minority and underserved groups, they also exist in the demographics of the researchers and scientists who work to reduce or eliminate cancer disparities. Hispanics earned only 3.2 percent of all doctoral degrees, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures."

Accordingly, she has an emphatic message for young Hispanics who aspire to be health professionals: "Stay in school, volunteer, and get your advanced degree. It is possible -- you just have to work hard at it. Don't give up on your dreams!"

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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