Dr. Katharine White

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Katharine White, MD, MPH

It’s a field that finds itself in the news almost every single day, and for good reason. On the one hand, the Center for Family Planning research reached its 20th anniversary last year, a celebration of 20 years dedicated to research in women’s health. On the other hand, a bill that not only further restricts abortion in Oklahoma, but also makes embryonic stem cell research illegal, cleared a House Committee as recently as February 4. It’s against the backdrop of this ongoing battle between whether or not there should be any research in the field of family planning and contraception, and to what degree, that Dr. Katharine White has to do her job.

White (MD, MPH) is the Chief of the Division of General OB/GYN, and the Director of the Family Planning Fellowship at Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, MA, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. The researcher, originally from New Jersey, says she is currently enjoying living and working in Massachusetts, which is perhaps a result of enjoying the research she does, because to say that she is passionate about her work would be a true understatement.

It’s that same passion that drove her into the field. “I love taking care of women, and helping them to maximize their health throughout their lives,” says White, “But I was frustrated by the lack of focus on family planning in my training – pregnancy is one of the most important times in a woman’s (or a couple’s) life, and all too often it happens by accident. I jumped at the opportunity for fellowship training in this field, to be able to perform research myself to better understand how contraception works – or doesn’t – for women.”

It is research like hers that is aiding women to maximize their health, get the contraception they want, and be able to switch to a different method, despite potential barriers, some of which can be put up by practitioners themselves. “Sometimes it’s a financial barrier, and sometimes it’s a barrier thrown up by the doctor. I had a 15–year-old patient whose pediatrician stopped giving her the contraceptive injection, for fear that she would develop osteoporosis later in life….and she then became pregnant. Another woman wanted her IUD removed, but her provider thought it was “too soon” for her to become pregnant again… so my patient removed her IUD herself with a pair of pliers,” she recalls.

However, the barriers exist not just for women who are seeking different kinds of contraception, but also within the research behind it. “This field, like many others, is limited by funding – we have a cohort of new researchers who graduate from the fellowship every year, and we’re all competing for an ever-dwindling pool of grant money,” she explains. That competition, as she tells us, is further increased in abortion research. There is a minimal amount of funding available for that specific area, as it can only come from foundations, not the government or pharmaceutical companies.

It is these biases that seem to truly hamper research in the area. “Family planning research is also limited by prejudice and expectations around sexual health. Many people involved in reviewing research, for an Institutional Review Board, for example, or to award funding, have their own notions of women’s reproductive health – how old women should be to use birth control, what methods should be used by which women, whether or not they should be able to get an abortion – that are not backed in science,” White tells us.

Yet, she powers right through, unfazed by these factors, and continues her efforts. “Politics may influence the funding, but it doesn’t influence the research because a vast majority of it is done by scientists and public health researchers, who look at what’s good for society and the public at large,” she says.

White does it for the women, for the people who are benefiting most from her extensive and dedicated research. “Successfully completing a study lets me have an impact on more women than just the patient in front of me. Having a personal connection to patients is incredibly important to me, but finding something new through research has the potential to improve many women’s lives at the same time.”

Social media, she realizes, is an effective tool to get through to women of all ages about their health, and to push the message forward. White has her own Twitter account, where she answers questions people may have about family planning.

“I think it’s vital for healthcare providers to develop a reputation for honesty and accessibility, and then to use that reputation to spread the facts, in a non-patronizing way, online and through social media. A lot of young women get much of their health information on line or through non-traditional sources. Growing up, my friends and I got most of our sex education from Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines!” she says. She is now a monthly contributor to Glamour and acts as an advisor to writers and editors on all aspects of reproductive health. “My work with Glamour  has helped me to ‘give back’ and to make sure that the information that’s out there is accurate and relevant,” she adds.

Her perseverance is an inspiring example to young researchers in the field, for whom she has a little piece of advice… “There’s a lot of skilled competition for not a lot of grant funding. Be prepared to hear ‘no’ a lot, but if you have a good idea, don’t let it go. I submitted my first major grant six times before it was funded!”

She signs off on this note—“I tell other researchers going into the field, not every woman has a disease, like cancer, for example. But many women, at some point, might have to think about family planning. It’s why this field has such immense potential, because it affects so many women’s lives.”