Chere Chase Gregory: Putting Women’s Health First

Using best practices from the business world, the Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness is helping reduce health disparities.

“Women are often most focused on being caregivers, and we’re helping them to be care receivers,” says Dr. Chere Chase Gregory, a North Carolina doctor who has a unique way of looking at patients: she thinks of them as customers who deserve to be wooed. The Maryland native—who’s the medical director for neurosciences at the Winston- Salem-based Forsyth Medical Center—recently helped launch the Forsyth’s Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness, which uses “health navigators” to keep women in the health-care loop at every stage of life.
Diversity Woman spoke with Gregory—who also went to business school to study health finance and management—about how she brought her love of business into medicine, how women’s health has changed radically in the past 20 years, and why a poet was a good model for getting women to finally see the doctor.

Diversity Woman: What made you want to be a doctor?
Chere Chase Gregory: As long as anyone in my family can remember, I wanted to be a doctor. Pretty early on, I wanted to be a pediatrician. My grandmother was a nurse, and the only other adult I was exposed to regularly was a pediatrician, and he was African American, so it felt doable that I could grow up and be like him.

DW: But you’re not a pediatrician. What changed?
CCG: I did a pediatrics rotation during my training and it was so sad—I realized I couldn’t do it.
But when I studied the spinal cord and brain—it was so complicated and fascinating—it really slowed me down so I could learn how they worked. That challenge was very exciting to me, so I ultimately chose to specialize in neurological critical care—things that make you sick enough to put you in intensive care.

DW: But that can be pretty sad, too, right?
CCG: When people think about diagnoses of the brain and spinal cord, they think there are no real cures for these problems. But neurological critical care and stroke care now offer new and advanced ways to repair the injured brain; and, in some cases of stroke, actually stop the injury from happening.
The other area I found interesting in medical school was women’s health, and how it spanned more than just the three Bs of babies, breast, and bone. There is so much unique about women, but people don’t talk about it.

DW: What in particular?
CCG: Twenty years ago, women weren’t often enrolled in research studies. So when we would say, ‘This medicine works well,’ we would also have to say, ‘We think it works for women,’ because it hadn’t been tested on them. Now, prior to providing money for research, many funding agencies require more diversity and inclusion among the participants. In addition, medical publications are less likely to accept research for publication without these important factors. There is still much work to be done, but we have seen progress.
So the medical community is starting to understand there are unique health considerations for women. People like to say that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, and people talk about how women are different emotionally from men. But they don’t understand that there truly is a biology of gender, in how women both present and fight diseases.

DW: In which diseases do you see this the most?
CCG: Cardiovascular disease is one. A lot of women are most afraid of cancer, but six times more women will die of cardiovascular disease. Often, if a woman feels like she’s having a heart attack, she won’t call, but she will call for her husband.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in women, but we present so differently than men. If a doctor doesn’t understand that and misdiagnoses it, it’s a vicious cycle. Strokes are the same way. So one of the things we wanted to do was to educate the public, and the health providers as well.

DW: How did your interest in the business side of health care come about?
CCG: I had work-study jobs in college. One was working for McDonald’s Corp. I was a shift manager in one of the restaurants in New Jersey and ultimately got hired for the corporate headquarters in the region.
One of my jobs was to go from store to store and assess recruitment and retention processes. I realized I loved business and thought it would be interesting to marry my interests in business and medicine.

DW: What is the business side of medicine—beyond making the most of the bottom line?
CCG: People think health care is different from any other industry, but one thing I find is that if something makes sense in the retail world, it can make sense in health care. We don’t call patients customers, but they really are customers.
The things that make customers satisfied in a retail environment can also work when they’re getting health care—whether it’s how they’re treated, or the use of softer palettes in the environment, or something else in the experience—and women are more attuned to those things. We need to understand what appeals to them, so they will want to come back and get the care they need.

DW: Does being on the administrative side ever make you feel removed from the hands-on part of medicine?
CCG: As a clinician, I impact lives each day, but as a physician leader, I help design programs and create strategic plans for hospitals. I impact the patients who come into the building even if I don’t provide care for them—so I get to do both.

DW: What was the thinking behind the Maya Angelou Center?
CCG: At Forsyth, we had been talking about how we can improve the health of patients, and we talked about the fact that there really hasn’t been much work in those disparities in women’s health care. We felt we understood those disparities, so we wanted to take on the mission with our physicians and nurses around the country, by increasing public awareness about disparities.

DW: Why did you name the center after Maya Angelou, a poet, rather than after a doctor?
CCG: When we started, we didn’t want to just impact health in Forsyth County, but in North Carolina, the United States, and around the world.
We needed to find someone who has been inspirational to women around the world. One of my favorite things that Maya Angelou has said is that women need to look after themselves—that that is “self-ful,” not selfish. Women often don’t do that, which is one of the reasons they don’t seek out health care.
When we did surveys, we asked women, “Of these names, who gives you the strongest sense of self-empowerment?” The goal is for women to go after the power to care for themselves—so who better than Dr. Angelou?

DW: How much has Angelou been involved?
CCG: She lives here, but she is busy, and probably a lot of people have wanted to name things after her. But this has been something she’s really taken on as a personal interest. When we had a press conference to introduce the center to the community, she came and she said she’d be happy to take questions. She’s shown a special interest—I think it’s touched her heart.

DW: How are you making the center’s mission go global?
CCG: We held a two-and-a-half-day summit to look at health internationally. Our goal was to bring people from around the world and cover every subject we could squeeze in.
One thing we covered is how, depending on where you live, you [might] believe you have the best care in the world.
While 99 percent of infant mortality in childbirth happens outside our country, there are some places in the U.S. with worse infant mortality than you’d find in other countries. It’s not a one-way street—we could learn a lot from other countries, and collaborate with other countries, to help people here.

DW: How does our health care suffer the most here?
CCG: I was invited to the UN a couple of months ago to talk about women’s health and rural America. 
One of the things that we were asked to do was compare rural and urban women. Some of the problems with health care here have to do with access. For some women in rural areas, there’s one ob-gyn in a four- or seven-county region, so that creates a risk for complications during pregnancy.
Another thing in rural life is a lack of child care. Rural women tend to be less likely to seek health care because there’s no one to leave their kids with.

DW: How does the center address some of these problems?
CCG: We work with women’s health navigators.  Our navigator team is a partnership between general women’s health navigators and disease-specific navigators (e.g., they specialize in stroke, heart disease, cancer). Depending on the reason for admission, each woman is assigned a specific navigator who talks to the patient about her illness or reason for admission. The navigator then spends time discussing preventive care and future wellness. This includes the importance of routine primary care visits and essential, age-specific preventive measures. We actually go one step further: if you need any preventive or wellness services (e.g., a mammogram), the same navigator schedules the appointment for you, and then we follow up two days after the appointment to make sure you went. It’s a more holistic, “easy-for-the patient” approach.
Educating patients about what they should have is one thing—but making it easy for them to have that access is another.

DW: What was the last great book you read?
CCG: It was The Women of Berkshire 
Hathaway [by Karen Linder], looking at women who work for Warren Buffett and the few women who are CEOs at Berkshire Hathaway companies. Some of the book includes their travels as immigrants from their original countries, and how they grew up to be these women he really respects. Very interesting! DW

Katrina Brown Hunt has written for Fortune Small Business, Smart Money, and the Seattle Times.

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