Patient care is an integral part of the job for a radiation oncologist. Yet nothing prepared Karen M. Winkfield, MD, PhD, to care for her husband, Jeffrey Walker, when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2003.
“His doctor said, ‘You have diabetes and hypertension and here are three sets of medicine you need to take,’ and he walked out of the room,” she recalls. “Being on the other side of the table and having to watch an individual who was brilliant and who understood his body struggle to navigate through a health care system that often becomes impersonal made me want my patients to have a very different experience.”
Winkfield has since devoted herself to advocacy, gently guiding her patients through the often-frightening cancer journey. “I try to make sure that every single patient I’m treating understands the diagnosis, understands why I’m recommending the treatment I’m recommending,” she says. “Then I try to simplify things for them.”
As chair of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Workforce Diversity Task Force, she also works to get rid of racial disparities and barriers to care. “Workforce diversity is a big passion of mine,” she says. “How can we make sure that patients are being cared for by people who look like them, or have similar experiences?”
Geography can be a barrier, too, which is why Winkfield reaches out to underserved rural communities with smoking cessation and cancer-screening programs.
As the youngest of six in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who shunned formal education, Winkfield learned the importance of mentoring. Many of the medical students she advises are, like her, the first in their family to attend college.
“Having people who were there to help support me through my journey was really critical,” she says. “So I take my experience through that difficult process and pour that into my mentees.”