One of the most important lessons of Valerie Montgomery Rice's life came far before the decades-long medical career that has established her as a leading figure in medical education and an advocate for women's health.
It was her mother's patience and relentless faith in others, Dr. Montgomery Rice says, that served as a foundation for her approach to medicine and leadership—and one she will rely on as she takes over as president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine in July 2014.
Her mother's outlook was to "always assume people have something to contribute until they prove otherwise," Dr. Montgomery Rice says. She applies that lesson in her work. "If you do this with every patient you encounter, every encounter when someone's asking you for advice, you will always consider what's best for them first."
Dr. Montgomery Rice, who is 52, is expected to be the first African-American woman to serve as president of an independent medical school. John E. Maupin Jr., the current president, said in an e-mail that the Morehouse Board of Trustees approved the new structure of elevating the dean's position to include being chief executive as well in 2010, after officials there saw other freestanding medical schools take a similar approach. The structure will take effect upon Dr. Maupin's retirement next year.
Even before Dr. Montgomery Rice was chosen to step into her new post, her position as dean and executive vice president at Morehouse set her apart at a time of growing calls for more diversity in the medical community.
The field of 141 active or interim deans at United States medical schools included just 22 women and eight African-Americans as of late May, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Dr. Montgomery Rice was the only black woman in such a position.
As the number of women attending medical school has grown in recent decades, so will the number of women in leadership positions, Dr. Montgomery Rice predicts.
"When you have people sitting at the table who've had different experiences, they're going to solve problems differently," she says. Having more female leaders in medicine is vital, she says, because it "brings complex perspectives and needed perspectives."
The importance of diversity—including "cognitive diversity"—has been reinforced throughout her adult life, she says, as she experienced one "culture shift" after another.
She started off as one of few women at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, then obtained her medical degree at Harvard Medical School. She is an obstetrician and gynecologist, and a specialist in reproductive endocrinology.
After holding several faculty and administrative positions at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, she joined Meharry Medical College, where she was dean and senior vice president for health affairs. There she founded and led the Center for Women's Health Research, which studies why women of color are at greater risk for certain diseases.
Medical schools need to prepare their students for big changes ahead, Dr. Montgomery Rice says. In anticipation that the coverage provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act will increase the demand for health care, she plans to focus on expanding the entering class size at Morehouse—at 70 students this year—to 100 by 2016. She takes an "anywhere, anytime, anyplace" approach to student learning—as of this year, she says, all lectures are videotaped so students can review them out of class.
Sixty to 70 percent of Morehouse students choose a primary-care path, she says. She wants to equip them to approach primary care from a holistic perspective, using team-based methods that provide clinic patients with extra services like nutritional counseling and psychosocial care alongside traditional medical treatment.
To provide care to underserved communities effectively, she says, medical professionals need to be trained to be compassionate. "Medicine allows us to integrate ourselves into the most intimate details of people's lives," she says, and doctors must "shepherd that information and guard it responsibly."