Delivery of Care

A patient turned doctor, turned advocate, turned president

A question and answer with Dr. Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Photo courtesy of PPFA

Dr. Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/1/19
In a question-and-answer with ConvergenceRI, Dr. Leana Wen, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, shared her insights about the importance of providing high-quality, comprehensive health care that is judgment-free and confidential.
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One of the most bizarre moments on the U.S. Senate floor occurred recently when Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, in attempting to undercut efforts for a Green New Deal, said that the solution to climate change was “to fall in love, get married, and have some kids.”
Meanwhile, on the floor of the U.S. House, a Republican Congressman Rep. Bradley Byrne from Alabama, attempted to “mansplain” to Rep. Susan Wild, a newly elected member of Congress from Pennsylvania, claiming that Wild didn’t understand the legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, to eliminate gender-based pay inequality by changing the language in the Fair Labor Standard Act. Wild co-sponsored the bill.
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Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Rep. Byrne and Sen. Lee?

PROVIDENCE – Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is the first physician in nearly 50 years to lead the organization. Prior to joining Planned Parenthood in November of 2018, Wen, an emergency room physician, served as the Baltimore City Health Commissioner.

She earned her medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine before becoming a Rhodes scholar. She completed her residency training at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

When she was 16, she walked into a health center run by Planned Parenthood in Pasadena, Calif., near where her family was living, seeking information about birth control, a story she recently shared with Marie Claire magazine.

“If you were to ask me the color of the wallpaper or number of chairs, I would have no way of knowing that,” she said in the interview. “But I remember the emotion of sitting in that waiting room feeling so scared and anxious.”

Wen found some pamphlets with information on contraceptives and was just about to take them and run out the door when her name was called by the receptionist, as she recounted in the Marie Claire story.

Wen said she didn’t recall the specifics of the care she received at that appointment, but she left Planned Parenthood knowing she had found her people. “The nurse was so kind and so normal and talked to me in the way I needed, which is as a person, as a peer, without judgment,” Wen said. “I remember the relief that I felt after I talked to somebody who I thought really got me.”

Twenty years later, Wen returned to the same Planned Parenthood health clinic, this time not as a patient, but as president of the organization, which provides care for some 2.5 million people nationwide through more than 650 health centers.

Here is a question-and-answer by Dr. Leana Wen with ConvergenceRI:

ConvergenceRI: When you talk about the importance of Planned Parenthood as a health care provider, you often use your own personal story as a way to engage with your audiences. Why does the sharing of personal stories resonate so powerfully?
I need our patients to know that I have been where they are. That for me, my mother, and my sister, Planned Parenthood provided us with health care and information when we had nowhere else to turn. The same goes for many of our national and affiliate staff members – they first came to know Planned Parenthood as patients. I think it’s important for people to know that we may have shared experiences to build trust. And trust is an essential part of the health care that Planned Parenthood provides. Of course, we provide high-quality, comprehensive health care, but it’s just as important that we’re also providing judgment-free and confidential care, so our patients know that we are their reliable and trusted provider – no matter what.

ConvergenceRI: In a time of great political division, you have been fearless in speaking out about the importance of women's health issues, on the connections to public health, and making the connections to gun violence and domestic violence. How important is it to connect with other women, particularly young doctors entering the medical profession, to make the political choices clear?
In my time working in the ER, I learned that the things making people sick weren’t always illnesses. They were often systemic injustices affecting things like access to health care, transportation, housing, employment, living environment, etc.

I realized that, yes, it’s important to treat the medical symptoms, but it’s also important to address the many other factors affecting the health of my patients. It’s important that we all realize this and work together to break down systemic injustices that lead to poor health outcomes.

We – myself, Planned Parenthood, and many other medical providers – are not the ones making health care political. Going to the doctor, getting medication, should not be political issues we’re debating at the state or federal level. It’s our duty – all of us, including young doctors entering the medical profession, to make clear that health care shouldn’t be political, and that health care is a fundamental human right.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as the best strategy to combat the lies and distortions around the issues of abortion and a woman's right to privacy when it comes to decisions about their health?
More than 100 years ago, Planned Parenthood was founded on the belief that your body is your own, and if it is not you can never be truly free or equal. To combat the lies, we need to tell the truth. And the truth is that abortion is a safe, standard medical procedure that 1 in 4 women will have in their lifetime.

Just as an individual has the right, in consultation with their doctor and family, to decide what medication might be best to treat any number of things, they should also have the right to decide when to become parents. What other area of medicine do you see scrutinized this way? We need to reaffirm to those attacking abortion access and rights that abortion is reproductive health care, reproductive health care is health care, and health care is a human right.

ConvergenceRI: New legislative efforts are attempting to ban abortions if a fetal heart beat can be heard. What is the best political strategy to defeat such efforts?
Unfortunately, we are seeing dangerous bans like this across the country at an alarming rate. Abortion bans have increased by more than 62 percent since last year. With Trump in the White House and Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, abortion access across the country is on the line.

Without policies that protect and expand access to abortion, 25 million women of reproductive age could lose access to abortion if Roe is gutted or overturned. That’s why we are seeing states pushing proactive policies at a rapid pace. States like Vermont, Maine and Illinois [and Rhode Island, as you know] are all working to protect access to reproductive health care, and we’ve seen states like New York codify Roe v. Wade into state law. We need these policies in place to create critical backstops before access to reproductive health care is eliminated altogether.

ConvergenceRI: Here in Rhode Island, a high school health clinic, through the use of Title X funds, has been able to cut the rate of teenage pregnancies by 55 percent in the last three years. Is that the kind of story that could be shared in the efforts by the Trump administration to curtail Title X funding?
Yes, and we’ve seen similar stories to this in other parts of the country as well. We in public health know what works. Teen birth rates are at a record low, and some of that is due to the access to and use of birth control.

Title X is a program dedicated to providing birth control services, as well as STI and cancer screenings, to 4 million people across the country. Planned Parenthood serves 41 percent of those 4 million people. The changes the administration is making to the program will only threaten to roll back the gains we have made in reducing teen pregnancy rates.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of specific outreach do you conduct when you travel to different communities? For instance, here in Rhode Island, do you seek out opportunities to meet with legislators, pediatricians, and public health officials?
I’m currently on a five-month affiliate listening tour, during which I will visit more than 20 affiliates. As I’ve traveled across the country, I’ve had a chance to see the innovative work our affiliates are doing to meet the needs of their patients and their communities. Health care is local, so the needs of one community may vary drastically from another.

For example, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte provides primary care services to infants to 100+ years old. During the Zika outbreak, Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida sent canvassers to knock on doors and provide residents and mothers about how to prevent the disease and receive care.

And I’m so excited to visit Planned Parenthood of Southern New England to hear about the work being done to combat disparities in maternal and infant mortality. I’ve had the chance to meet hundreds of our affiliate staff members so far, and many people from the various communities we’ve visited.

I truly feel at home when I’m able to visit our health centers and speak with our frontline providers and staff – just how I got my start in the health care field. We’ve been hosting public health roundtables at many of our visits, giving local health officials and organizations the chance to convene and discuss the most pressing issues in their communities, and how they might partner together to solve them.

In California, we heard from local health officials and Planned Parenthood staff about the STI crisis in their state, and how they’re working together on research and outreach to patients. I’ve had the chance to meet with many legislators as well.

In Ohio, we were thrilled be joined at one of our public health roundtables by several legislators, who are the minority in their state legislatures when it comes to advocating for reproductive health and rights. It’s important to meet all of these people doing such great work on the ground and examine programs that we should think about scaling up and replicating in other communities.

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