Campus & Community

Bridging the doctor-patient divide

4 min read

Medical School grad focuses on grassroots communications in community health

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Katherine Johnson has spent four years at Harvard Medical School (HMS), learning not only the skills, but also the language, of medicine. Now graduating as a physician, Johnson wants to translate that language into words that everyday people understand.

During her time at HMS, Johnson developed a passion for community medicine. She also realized that there is often a large gap between physicians and patients, who frequently rely on friends and relatives instead of on their doctors for medical information.

Among her activities while at HMS, Johnson designed a survey, conducted over the summer between her first and second years, that explored teenagers’ attitudes toward pregnancy. One thing she discovered is that teens sometimes misunderstand basic terms, such as “family planning,” which some teens thought meant a program for those interested in having a family, rather than those interested in contraception.

“Teens went to their friends for advice, or their moms, but not really physicians,” Johnson said. “There’s a big gap between physicians and teens in terms of communication and feeling comfortable. These are themes that have stayed with me as I think about what’s important to me and what kind of physician I want to be.”

Johnson, who grew up in Hawaii and attended Yale University, began studying patients’ knowledge, expectations, and attitudes toward medicine while still an undergraduate. Though she entered Yale wanting to be an engineer, she changed her mind after a summer working at an engineering firm and volunteering at a home for mentally ill homeless people. She found the work with the mentally ill refreshing.

The following summer, she shadowed a physician at a hospital on Oahu, where several seriously ill patients from the Marshall Islands were being treated. Johnson became interested in understanding the barriers to medical access in the Marshalls that caused the patients to seek medical care late. The following summer she traveled to the Marshalls to find out, interviewing medical professionals and the heads of women’s groups to explore attitudes related to cervical cancer.

At HMS, Johnson carried on that work. In her first year, she helped to design the teen survey under the guidance of Hope Ricciotti, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at HMS and Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and director of obstetrics and gynecology at the Dimock Center in Roxbury. The Dimock had been having problems getting teens to participate in family planning programs, and Ricciotti wanted to know why. Johnson worked on designing the study in January, then conducted interviews the following summer.

“It went very, very well,” Ricciotti said of the project. “She’s kind of a dynamo and a self-starter.”

Ricciotti said Johnson published the results and returned that fall to present findings to the Dimock staff, something no student had previously done and which is now a requirement.

Johnson also worked with General Education Development (GED) students at Action for Boston Community Development Inc. to create a health literacy module to be offered as part of a future GED course. She also co-founded a student organization focused on health literacy.

This spring, Johnson went to Argentina, where she did a rotation at a community health center in Salta and at private medical clinics in Cordoba. She took advantage of travel options in her fourth year partly because she enjoys seeing new places, but also because she knew that perfecting her Spanish would be an important tool for work in U.S. health clinics.

Johnson matched to a residency program at BIDMC in obstetrics and gynecology, where she’ll work again with Ricciotti. She hopes to return to the community setting at Dimock.

“I really would like to work in a community setting and think about program implementation, always keeping in mind who we’re trying to serve,” Johnson said. “Providing a service isn’t sufficient. You have to think about who it is you’re trying to serve and what are their needs, their thoughts, their perspectives, and how we can use that to develop programs that are more appropriate for the population.”