Elizabeth Garner, MD, MPH becomes President of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) from March 2023 to March 2024. Dr. Garner begins this leadership role at the closing of the 108th AMWA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.
“I am delighted to turn over the role of AMWA President to Dr. Elizabeth Garner,” says outcoming AMWA President, Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgrader. “Dr. Garner brings a broad perspective of the healthcare ecosystem, specifically in women’s health, with experience in academic medicine, medical affairs, and R&D in the pharmaceutical industry. We are grateful to have Dr. Garner taking the helm of the AMWA board of directors and look forward to collaborating with her in the year ahead.”
Elizabeth Garner, MD, MPH, became Chief Scientific Officer/US,for Ferring Pharmaceuticals in May of 2022. Dr. Garner completed her medical training at Harvard specializing in obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to pharma medical affairs. She has held roles of increasing strategic responsibility in large and small companies.
Dr. Garner Delivers her Inaugural Presentation at AMWA’s Annual Meeting Gala
It was right here in Philadelphia that I attended my first AMWA meeting. I left having re-connected with colleagues from various stages of my medical training and work and having made new lifelong friends. The atmosphere was so inviting. I felt that every member I met was interested in supporting me and making me feelwelcome. In a span of two days, I had meaningful conversations about careers, women’s leadership, and our personal lives. I hope this has been your experience over the past few days.
There’s more though…Over the years, I have seen this organization continue to grow in its status and recognition as THE most important organization for women physicians and their allies not just to advance their individual careers and make lasting friends, but at the same time to advance ALL women in medicine, fight for gender equity in pay, address workplace culture, protect our reproductive rights, and improve women’s health, an area that has been largely ignored.
This time for me represents a convergence of elements of my identity with the work of my life, setting the stage for the role I hope to play this year as President of AMWA. I also realize that both my background and my career have been distinct from that of many AMWA members and presidents, as I didn’t grow up in this country and I’ve worked in the pharmaceutical industry for almost 16 years now. So, it feels fitting to share with you a bit about my personal experience and some of the perspectives and ideas I bring with me as I embark on the AMWA presidency.
My identity as a woman who works to lead change comes directly from the foundation of my upbringing, my early years growing up, and my socio-cultural experiences. I was born and raised in Nigeria, the daughter of a white American Peace Corps Volunteer and a Nigerian electrical engineer. My parents married in 1964, three years before interracial marriage became legal in the United States. Their enormous 500-attendee wedding was covered by the New York Times and Life Magazine and many other news outlets around the globe.
Eleven days after I was born, the Biafran war started and we fled to Nanka, my dad’s rural village in eastern Nigeria, where we lived for the first year of the war. There was no electricity or running water, and my mother was the only white person, with no one who could speak English around her. Ultimately, my mother, my older brother, and I were flown out of the country as war refugees. We lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. My mother describes her experiences of racism as she had a tough time getting an apartment as she was assumed to be a single mother with two black kids. Once the war was over in 1970, we returned to Nigeria to be reunited with my dad.
After finishing high school in Nigeria, I came to the US for college. I attended my mother’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college. From there I attended Harvard Medical School. I knew early on that I wanted to have a medical career that would incorporate an understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ of medicine, so along with my MD I also completed a joint Master’s degree in Public Health. I trained in obstetrics and gynecology and gynecologic oncology and incorporated research in parallel.
I truly enjoyed academic medicine and did not foresee my career in industry. I was working at Brigham and Women’s and Dana Farber, maintaining a clinical gynecologic oncology practice, conducting basic science research in ovarian cancer, and teaching and mentoring students, residents, and fellows… but continued to feel that I wanted to do more.
Out of the blue, in 2007, I was invited to interview at Merck to work on the Gardasil HPV vaccine and was immediately intrigued as I had already realized that I wanted to have a broader impact on women’s health beyond direct patient care. It also dovetailed with my clinical experience managing patients with various HPV-related conditions including cervical cancer, so I agreed to meet the team to learn more. I came away impressed with the brilliance, passion, and integrity of the people I met and decided to take the leap.
In the last 16 years, I have worked for six different companies — Merck, Abbott (AbbVie), Myriad Genetics, Agile Therapeutics, ObsEva, and now Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Most recently I have joined corporate company boards, which allows me to have even greater influence and impact.
What’s wonderful about my work it is the wide variety of issues and projects in which I participate, and that I get to use my clinical experience virtually every day. I also frequently serve as a company spokesperson for news media and in my past couple of jobs, for investors. These platforms allow me to advocate for change and for more progress in women’s health, which is my greatest passion.
Let’s talk a bit about women’s leadership. There is no doubt we have made significant process in the number of women leaders in the healthcare industry. However, this is not enough. It’s great to have women be at the table, but the importance of not only having us at the table but in the driver’s seat, being the final decision-makers on policy, on strategy, has become steadily clearer to me over time.
One area in which we MOST need women decision-makers is to push for more investment in women’s health. By women’s health, I mean conditions that only women have, conditions that disproportionately affect women, like autoimmune disease, and conditions that affect women differently, like heart disease. According to a February 2022 article, “female conditions outside of oncology comprise less than 2% of the current healthcare pipeline and only 1% of the total investment of almost $200 billion in healthcare research and innovation.” This is simply unacceptable.
The lack of investment also means that we don’t understand the science around many women’s health conditions, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, pre-eclampsia and others. And because we have minimal understanding it is difficult to develop effective treatments. As a result, women continue to suffer, often silently, with common conditions that still today, despite unprecedented innovation in many OTHER areas of healthcare, remain unaddressed and without effective treatments.
Why is this? Well, I often hear from investors that women’s health is a “niche” market, that investing in women’s health is too risky. I beg to differ. With women being 50% of the population I find that impossible to believe. In fact, it is clear to me that there are enormous opportunities in women’s health.
The good news is that even in these times of uncertainty for women’s reproductive rights, I see increasing attention to the health of women. Things are changing slowly but surely. Women have begun to fight against historical stigma around infertility, miscarriage, heavy bleeding from uterine fibroids, pain from endometriosis, hot flushes and other menopausal issues, and other conditions. Furthermore, the Roe vs Wade supreme court decision is catalyzing change as women recognize the potential for even further impingement on reproductive health.
For a subset of women, the situation is even worse. We continue to face tremendous challenges around health equity for women of color and other underserved populations. CDC data show that the maternal mortality rate in the US doubled between 2002 and 2018, and women of color were impacted disproportionately. Black women are three times more likely to die from complications associated with pregnancy than white women. The Covid-19 pandemic had a major negative impact on mental health for many but was even more impactful in women from minority communities. Here again, I’m optimistic that this is slowly beginning to change as advocacy groups are becoming stronger and more attention is being paid on the issue by the FDA, NIH, and other organizations.
Thirty years ago, the Health Revitalization Act of 1993 was introduced and, as described in STAT news, was a “game changer” for research in women’s health. Through the Sex and Gender Health Collaborative, AMWA has continued to be a leader in this space. With AMWA’s well-established platform as a leading voice for women in healthcare and the health and reproductive rights of women, we have an opportunity as an organization to continue to move the women’s health agenda and to insist on health equity for all individuals. AMWA is committed to developing women as leaders, to addressing physician burnout with a focus on women doctors, and to protecting reproductive healthcare, among other important issues. Bringing together these varied yet related aspects of AMWA’s work, we have the potential not only to get more women into leadership positions at the very top but to do so while supporting pay equity, wellness, and reproductive rights as well as those of our patients.
Now just a few words for our pre-meds, students, and residents. You are the future of this organization. You are the future leaders of the organization. You are the innovators, the generators of new ideas and new ways to do things….so please, speak up, and don’t hold back. AMWA needs you.
I look forward to having you join me on this journey in the coming year to further increase AMWA’s impact both internally and externally.