My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Janice M. Barnhart, MD, MS, FACP
While working at a hospital in the state of Washington this summer, Dr. Barnhart took time off to visit Mt. Rainier National Park.
Efforts to resuscitate a seriously ill toddler had come to a near standstill in the emergency room at New York City's Presbyterian Hospital when Dr. Janice Barnhart's mother heard a female doctor burst into the emergency room shouting at staff, "Don't stand there and let that baby die." The unconscious toddler was the future Dr. Janice Barnhart. She had been rushed to the emergency room after swallowing white-coated pills that "looked like M & Ms candy."
The physician's knowledge and experience saved Dr. Barnhart's life that day. Knowing that a young child's veins can be difficult to access, the take-charge doctor was able to resuscitate her through the heel of her foot. Dr. Barnhart says it was an experience that left a permanent mark, not only on her heel, but in her mind and heart as well. Over the years, listening to her mother retell the story, Dr. Barnhart was continually reminded of the female doctor who knew what to do in a critical situation, had the courage to take charge, and cared deeply about saving the life of a little girl she did not know.
Finding her path
Born and raised in New York City, Dr. Barnhart didn't always know that she wanted to be a doctor. She only knew that she liked classes that were academically challenging. She admits she struggled with confidence and says that it was others who believed in her-her mother, a teacher in elementary school, and a high school guidance counselor-who pushed her in directions that would eventually put her on the path to college and medical school.
While attending Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, Dr. Barnhart was delighted to receive a letter of acceptance from Barnard College in New York City, but chose instead to attend Howard University in Washington, DC. She says she wanted the experience of living away from home, the opportunity to attend a black university, and noted that cost was a big issue. Raised by a working class single-parent mother, Dr. Barnhart did not want the burden of huge student loans and says she is so fortunate that scholarship monies and part-time jobs helped finance 8 years of higher education without leaving her swamped in debt.
Howard University did not have a biology program, so Dr. Barnhart majored in Zoology and minored in chemistry. While going to school, she worked as a phlebotomist at a nearby hospital and got an insider's view of the hospital medicine. After graduating from Howard, she went to Gainesville, Florida, where she received her medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine. Initially, she began her medical residency training as a Med-Peds resident, but after a year transferred to SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn where she joined an internal medicine residency program. She laughs as she admits, "I simply could not handle all the crying on the pediatric wards."
Her turn to cry
While studying for her boards and doing rotations at an inner city hospital, Dr. Barnhart began to see how issues like disparities in care and access to care were affecting the patient population. She decided she wanted to find a way to help improve care for minorities and women. It turns out that opportunity would come in the form of research related to public health issues. After spotting an ad in a medical journal, Dr. Barnhart applied and was accepted to a Fellowship program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she studied health services research and got her Master of Science degree in epidemiology from UCLA's School of Public Health.
After getting her Master's degree, Dr. Barnhart moved back to New York to accept a position as instructor of Medicine, Epidemiology & Population Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Her work focused on determining the impact of clinical and nonclinical factors on racial/ethnic and gender disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease. In addition to working on grant-sponsored studies, Dr. Barnhart collaborated with the Department of Family Medicine to establish a disparities research center at Einstein. Her work earned her the ACP 2013 Award for Diversity and Access to Care.
"If it wasn't for the fear of uncontrollable sobbing," says Dr. Barnhart, "I would have cried during ACP's awards ceremony. It was such an honor to be acknowledged like that." For Dr. Barnhart, ACP has been a tremendous resource for networking. "ACP is full of phenomenal people," she says, "and its commitment to advancing internal medicine and improving access to quality health care is very important to me."
The heart and science of medicine
During the years she spent working in the field of research, Dr. Barnhart maintained her clinical skills by working part-time as a hospitalist. It turns out that was a good decision, as she is now transitioning into a career as a full-time hospitalist. "Generating small data-based research studies is fascinating work and can be rewarding," says Dr. Barnhart, "but the ongoing challenge to get funded and published is something I'm happy to leave behind at this point." And besides, the best part of being a doctor, according to Dr. Barnhart, is "being on the front lines of medicine, helping patients improve and feel better." Making the right diagnosis is a challenge she loves, and when patients recover from serious illnesses such as acute renal failure, pneumonia, or heart failure, it is the best reward possible.
Dr. Barnhart is a real life example that a career in internal medicine can open the door to a variety of opportunities. From research and academia to patient care, she is now combining her passion for travel with her career in hospital medicine. Dr. Barnhart works for an agency that sends her on assignment to hospitals around the country. She recently completed a 3-month rotation at a hospital in the state of Washington and before she begins a new assignment in September, she will take time off in August to travel to Central America with members of her church and her 22-year-old daughter who recently graduated from college.
Part vacation, part church outreach, Dr. Barnhart will spend 5 days of her trip doing pro bono care at a free clinic in Guatemala City. "I believe, and I want my daughter to experience, how much we have to be grateful for in our lives." Dr. Barnhart believes it is important to work hard, but says, "Everything can't be about money. Compassion is important. Service to others is important."
Dr. Barnhart's philosophy is, "I always try to do for my patients what I would want a doctor to do for me or a member of my family." A philosophy she adopted, in part, from a doctor she encountered in an emergency room so many years ago. Dr. Barnhart isn't a cardiologist, but she is a doctor who is all heart, who cares about people she doesn't know, and who well understands that the best part of being a doctor is "being on the front lines of medicine, helping patients improve and feel better."