Institute Of Medicine Author: Edward R. Silverman
Sidebar: Members of the IOM
With the election last month of its latest slate of members, the Institute of Medicine (IoM)-an honor society affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences-will have more women in its ranks than at any other time in its 25-year history when the honorees are inducted next year.
Including the 15 women who are among the crop of 55 new members elected in October, women now constitute 21 percent of the society's 519 regular members. That's up from 19 percent last year, when 17 women were elected. In addition to the 55 new regular members, five individuals were elected directly to senior IoM membership, bringing the total of senior members to 559. In addition, four people were elected as foreign associates; this membership category, established seven years ago, now totals 41. The new members will be formally inducted at the institute's annual dinner, which will take place next October.
The institute staff says the rising proportion of female inductees is not a surprise. According to IoM officials, the increase reflects a strong desire on the part of the institute to broaden the society's membership as it seeks to strengthen its role as an innovative public-policy think tank.
"We've made a concerted effort to diversify [segments of] our membership-by race, gender, and professional disciplines-that were underrepresented in the past," notes Karen Hein, the institute's executive officer.
"By having these different voices, we're more likely to have a more broader scientific agenda and policies," she maintains. "It should keep us current with the country's health and science policies, and [enable the institute to] be in tune with the public."
Newly elected IoM member Gail Cassell: "They really put you to work. But you're addressing issues in depth, and it broadens you." Time will likely further the process within IoM, if only because the growing number of female members mirrors societal trends affecting many workplaces. Simply put, there are more women among the latest generation of scientists and academics, according to Hein.
"The ranks of women are still pretty thin at senior levels" in IoM as well as in the scientific community at large, she points out. "So, as an institution, we're looking to see if there are barriers [within IoM]. We're doing better these last few years, but we still have a long way to go."
According to Hein, the institute also made a conscious decision to mitigate what she calls the "cohort effect," in which members from roughly the same age bracket and level of experience would be inclined to nominate demographically similar members, a potential problem IoM is trying to avoid.
To combat this, the institute made a policy decision, when it was chartered by Congress in 1970, to shift all members to senior status when they turn 65 years old. At that point, they can no longer vote for new members. The National Academy of Sciences, by contrast, does not have such a policy.
The institute's charter calls for a broad-based membership from within the medical community-including practicing physicians, researchers, nurses, and public-health officials. At least one-quarter of the total active membership must be drawn from other professions, such as law and economics.
New members are chosen by an electoral process within the active membership-those who are under 65. Candidates are nominated by institute members. The list of prospective members is divided into categories based on professional disciplines. Names are winnowed again by the membership committee to be reviewed before a final membership-wide vote is held.
Once elected, new members are expected to volunteer their time to work on various projects and issue reports related to health-policy concerns. Current efforts include studies of addiction disorders, controlling sexually transmitted diseases, female morbidity and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, and health care at the end of life.
Several of the newly elected members are effusive about the honor, what it represents, and the possibilities it holds.
"I regard this to be the biggest accomplishment of my career," says Angela Barron McBride, distinguished professor and dean of the School of Nursing at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
"I've won a number of awards and honorary degrees, and I'm appreciative of all that, but what's unique about the institute is that it's an interdisciplinary group, unlike much of health care, which is ghettoized by field," she states.
"You know, physicians often talk to physicians and nurses talk to nurses. But this institution is charged by Congress for facilitating thoughtful papers and studies that will help with the formulation of policy. So, I'm being elected to a group that does make a difference."
Gail H. Cassell, who chairs the microbiology department at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, comments: "They really put you to work. But you're addressing issues in depth, and it broadens you."
Indeed, several new members agree that they expect their membership will expose them to new ideas and approaches, just as they also hope to have the same impact on their colleagues.
"The institute needs to put more emphasis on nutrition," declares Scott M. Grundy, who chairs the department of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and who was also elected to IoM membership this year. "And I hope I'll be able to do that. I'd like to use some of that leverage and do more for the field."
And what might having more women in the institute's ranks mean to the new members? Newly elected member Mary O. Mundinger, dean of the School of Nursing at Columbia University, says that it will yield a more expansive view of problems and solutions.
"In order of importance, the three most important benefits [of being an IoM member] for everyone [are] networking, networking, and networking. You have the ability to talk with the best minds in the country," she observes.@/@"But when you have a woman's view, it [tempers] a man's view," she adds. "And we need that, because we don't have a similar percentage of women in Congress. "And look at the changes in health care. There's more emphasis on prevention and health promotion and how to use technology. These uses could be greatly helped by a woman's view."
Mundinger maintains that "the core mission of nursing includes a family and community approach to healing, which isn't necessarily included in traditional medical views that focus on diagnostics and research. Nurses are still mostly women, so if we bring more nurses in, we'll get a better view of what works."
Sidebar: Members of the IOM
Edward R. Silverman is a freelance writer based in Millburn, N.J.