Get to Know Your Leaders: Debra Ness, MS, ACC Public Member Trustee | Cardiology Magazine
Get to Know Your Leaders | As the first public member on the ACC’s Board of Trustees (BOT), Debra Ness, MS, is the only member without a medical degree. “I find myself in that position quite a lot,” laughs Ness, contemplating the image of being surrounded by a room full of doctors.
Serving as president for the National Partnership for Women & Families, Ness has spent many years expanding the Washington, DC-based non-profit’s advocacy efforts into the realm of medicine and patient treatment. Because of these efforts, she provides a unique and much-needed patient perspective on ACC activities.
Now in her second year on the BOT, Ness describes the experience as a responsive, two-way learning process. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to practice in the real world, and what the issues of health policy are from the perspective of a practicing cardiologist,” says Ness. “Now when I go into health policy circles to talk about quality measurement and smarter payment policies and transparency and accountability and all of those things that are hot topics right now in the policy arena, I’m doing so in a way that is much better informed by the experience of physicians who are living and breathing and practicing in that world.”
Raised in Bayonne, NJ, Ness was born into a working class family. While her mother took on various jobs and raised a family, her father was a dock worker, moving up through the ranks to manage warehouses and eventually to planning how shipping containers should be unloaded and loaded in the most efficient way possible. “They had to work very hard to make it possible for my brother and I to go to school, get an education, and to have the better life that they wanted us to have,” says Ness. “Because I watched them make sacrifices for us to be able to do better than they did, I realized along the way that I was really lucky to have the opportunities that their hard work made possible. And it always felt to me like I needed to do something to give back – not just to them but also to the broader world in which I lived. I have this deep seeded desire to promote social justice.”
During her college years, Ness held herself to this path of helping others, committing herself to all kinds of volunteer work, including working as a family planning aide in medical clinics and serving in senior citizen communities. While her peers took a typical semester abroad, Ness spent hers in rural Kentucky providing early learning education for children, family counseling and home health care in areas where there wasn’t access to medical treatment. Ness notes that the experience of seeing people in her own country living in tin shacks with barely any clean drinking water was eye-opening. “I didn’t go abroad. It was right here in this country and it had an extraordinary impact on me,” she says. “It reinforced my desire to to improve lives.”
After completing her graduate studies in social welfare and public health policy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, Ness moved to Washington, DC, where she helped workers in indebted, low-skill professions who couldn’t afford to leave their jobs get more training and education. Moving on to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League years later, she advanced through the ranks from national field director to deputy director.
It was here, focusing on reproductive health issues important to the well-being of women, that Ness was first exposed to the complex policy arena of Washington, DC. “If you really want to change things, if you want to make life better for people, there are systemic changes that have to be made through a combination of tools, but one of them is public policy,” says Ness. “The reason I didn’t go into clinical social work was because I knew from all of my previous volunteer work that I didn’t want to solve these problems one person at a time. I wanted to get to the root of the problem and deal with the systemic issues that were causing those problems in the first place. Having that on-the-ground, hands-on experience was incredibly important and shaped my understanding of the importance of policy, but certainly reinforced how important it was to fight for systemic change.”
Eventually, Ness was recruited by the National Partnership for Women and Families, which at the time was called the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and focused on women’s workplace issues such as pregnancy discrimination, equal pay and sexual harassment. Ness has helped expand the scope of the organization over the last several years. Rather than focusing solely on amending an infrastructure of laws, the group is now focused on changing culture itself. However, changing culture has required building partnerships and allies among other organizations, the ACC being one of them. “Our organization became one of the first at the forefront of consumer advocacy groups having a voice on health care quality and delivery-system policy,” says Ness. “As a result I became familiar with the work of the College because it was one of the more progressive physician organizations when it came to understanding the importance of evidence-based care and quality measurement. I learned about the innovative registry work that was being done, and the fact that there were member leaders actively working to shape health care reform policies in a way that would improve quality, be consistent with evidence and lower cost at the same time.”
Ness is enthusiastic about her role on the BOT and the opportunities to help strengthen the physician and patient relationship. “I have really bold hope for the health care system at large,” she says. “I hope that over the next decade we see a profound cultural transformation, not just a transformation in payment and delivery models, but a real cultural transformation in the relationship between patients, families and clinicians and that we will move to a place where patients and clinicians see themselves as partners with patients and families in the process of achieving better health and better health care.”
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