Passion for social justice earns physician recognition

Faith, formal education and life experiences have shaped the character of Katherine Jahnige Mathews, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. But she feels fate played a part in bringing her to St. Louis in 1998, where she has found a way to fulfill her passion for pursuing social justice through medicine.

A faculty member at the Siteman Cancer Center and a physician at ConnectCare, part of the St. Louis region’s health-care safety net, Mathews strives to bring together elements of the St. Louis community to improve health care access for the underprivileged and underinsured.

Her efforts have earned her the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Herbert W. Nickens, M.D., Faculty Fellowship for 2004. The annual award honors an outstanding junior faculty member involved in addressing inequities in medical education and health care.

Katherine Jahnige Mathews
Katherine Jahnige Mathews

As co-director, with her colleague Dione Farria, M.D., of the Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD) at the Siteman Cancer Center, Mathews has coordinated efforts to promote breast health in the St. Louis area. Drawing together partners in Siteman and the local region, with funding support from the Komen Foundation, she helps provide breast cancer information, make screenings available, and ensure timely treatments for more than 3,500 uninsured and underserved women in the African-American, refugee and immigrant communities.

“My home since moving to St. Louis has been Siteman, and Tim Eberlein (director of Siteman) made it possible for me to come here and do this work,” Mathews says. She believes PECaD can serve as a model nationally for eliminating economic and social barriers to high-quality health care. Having begun with a focus on breast health, she is now working to expand PECaD’s efforts to include cervical, prostate and colorectal cancer.

Mathews has a varied and ambitious background. Fresh from college, Mathews worked overseas in Kenya and Tanzania, serving with the Anglican Church in a community health-worker training project. After returning to the United States, she earned her medical degree, a master’s degree in public health, and a degree in theology.

These elements interweave in her numerous roles, which in addition to her work at Siteman and ConnectCare, include project director for the Witness Project, a faith-based program to aid breast cancer survivors; executive health editor of the St. Louis American, a weekly newspaper with a large African-American readership; and physician trustee of the St. Louis Episcopal-Presbyterian Charitable Health and Medical Trust, where she helped commission a study on health care for those living in poverty.

Mathews views health and health care holistically, both in the sense that health encompasses mental as well as physical well-being and in the sense that health depends on whole communities.

“In Africa, I saw health wasn’t just about individual choices; it was also about how clean the water is, how good the education is and what the roads are like,” Mathews says. “Surprisingly, many here in St. Louis face a comparable set of concerns. Some areas of the city have very bad health outcomes as the result of large disparities in access to health information and health care.”

The Nickens Faculty Fellowship includes a $15,000 grant to support the recipient’s academic and professional activities. Mathews will apply the funding toward a project to enhance minority enrollment in cancer research trials so that research fairly represents all population groups. As a first step, she will examine the forms currently used to obtain informed consent for clinical trials, specifically scrutinizing the language and concepts used.

“I am very honored to have received the Nickens award,” Mathews says. “But I also feel the award speaks to the gifts we have here as a community, both at Washington University and in the St. Louis region. Much of what I’ve been involved with has been part of a broader energy in the community, and I believe there was a wonderful grace in my coming to St. Louis.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.