Advocating for those with the greatest need: Dr. Katherine O'Rourke '08

Author: Katherine O'Rourke '08

O Rourke 250

Soon after starting my obstetrics and gynecology residency at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2012 I cared for a woman who was diagnosed with and quickly died of advanced cervical cancer.  Though cervical cancer is nearly 100 percent preventable, she had been uninsured and therefore did not have access to the care she needed to prevent this terrible disease.  Inspired by this patient, I approached my faculty mentor, Dr. Mary Landry, and asked her where uninsured patients in Madison receive the gynecologic care they need.  When Dr. Landry told me that there was not an existing program to provide advanced gynecologic care to uninsured women we decided we needed to do something to provide those services.
Dr. Landry and I initially tried to work with existing organizations to provide advanced gynecologic care to uninsured women in our community.  However, the existing organizations told us that they either were unable to support the provision of gynecologic care, or they were unable to allow us to work with students while providing gynecologic care.  I felt very strongly that we should involve students in caring for the uninsured in our community--both so they could gain gynecology experience, and so they could gain exposure to underserved medicine and subsequently develop a lifelong commitment to caring for those with the greatest needs.
Without an existing organization willing to allow us work with them, Dr. Landry and I sought the support of additional community members and in September, 2013 founded Share the Health Free Gynecology Clinic, Inc., a non-profit corporation with 501(c)3 tax status.  The mission of our organization is to improve the health of underserved women in need of gynecologic specialty care in Dane County and neighboring communities; and to inspire a commitment among future professionals, of all vocations, to caring for the underserved in our communities.  We put our mission into action from the inception of the organization as we sought the assistance of UW business and law students in developing the logistics of the organization.  Since then we have continued to integrate business, law, medical, public health, and undergraduate students, as well as gynecology residents, in all aspects of clinic operations.
In order to ensure we would be able to meet the needs of our community in a sustainable way, we partnered with many healthcare organizations.  Madison Women's Health, a private practice gynecology clinic, donates their clinic space, support staff, and all supplies needed to provide patient care.  When we collect biopsies the University of Wisconsin Hospital and clinics donate the pathology processing fees, and the UW pathologists donate their professional fees.  Meriter Hospital in Madison donated a significant portion of the start-up and ongoing costs for Epic medical record systems, so that other providers can easily access our patient's medical information and therefore decrease duplication of services.  We work closely with other underserved clinics and state programs to ensure we do not duplicate any services that are available elsewhere.
Share the Health opened its doors to patients in January, 2014, and we see patients one evening per month.  During the first two years we completed 171 patient visits, performed 183 procedures, diagnosed two patients with cancer and streamlined their access to care through the UW Gynecologic Oncology program, prevented countless cases of gynecologic cancers, and improved the health of our community. We also partnered with community organizations and provided patient health education sessions.  More importantly, we asked local organizations what they needed from us and learned that we could best focus our educational efforts by teaching patients and providers how to access care.  We developed "Guides to Accessing Women's Health Care" which walk patients and providers through identifying resources based on medical need, income, citizenship, etc. and have published these guides on our website.  During the first two years of clinic operations we also had 88 medical student volunteers gain clinical experience at Share the Health.  We recently surveyed student volunteers and learned that 88 percent of students found volunteering at Share the Health sparked or increased their interest in a career in underserved medicine.
Over the course of the past two and a half years, Share the Health has continued to grow and expand in terms of the medical care we provide to patients, our outreach efforts to community organizations, and the educational opportunities we provide to students of all training levels and disciplines.  We are hoping that Share the Health will serve as a model program which can be replicated across specialties on a national level.
My commitment to serving the medically underserved is one that has been built off of the foundation Notre Dame gave me.  While at Notre Dame I was the Social Concerns Commissioner for Cavanaugh Hall and participated in weekly Circle K service projects with my dormmates.  I also completed a summer service project in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I worked with an alumnus and lived with three alumni families.  These experiences taught me that community service is not something that we do from time to time, it is a way of life.  When I moved on to medical school at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and then residency at UW, there was never a question of whether or not I would participate in community service--it was just a natural part of my daily life.  
Notre Dame's strong academic training left me very well prepared for the rigor of medical school, which has allowed me to balance my studies with a life of service to others. I will forever be grateful for the impact Notre Dame has had on my life and my career.