Physician Education and Professional Advocacy

Posted July 20th, 2009 at 6:00 pm.

Carol Bernstein

When Carol Bernstein ’69 graduated from Bryn Mawr College, she thought she’d become a teacher. She earned a master of arts in teaching from Antioch University in 1971 and at one time taught school in Philadelphia. But her career goals shifted after she moved to Canada and took a job as a social-work assistant at McMaster University’s medical school. The physicians, social workers, and psychiatrists she worked with recognized her aptitude and suggested she apply to medical school. She took postbaccalaureate science courses to prepare and entered Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) at age 29; as an intern, she switched her specialty from internal medicine to psychiatry. She served on Columbia’s faculty before joining the New York University School of Medicine in 1993.

Yet Bernstein didn’t leave education behind; she has dedicated her professional life to educating the next generation of physicians. In 1985, a year after she finished her residency training, Bernstein was offered a position as assistant director of medical-student education in psychiatry at Columbia. Subsequently, in addition to serving as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, she was associate director of the residency training program in psychiatry.

Today at NYU, Bernstein is an associate professor of psychiatry as well as vice chair for education in the department of psychiatry and associate dean for graduate medical education at the NYU School of Medicine. In her current role, she oversees house staff education for all residency and fellowship programs.

“My career came full circle,” Bernstein reflects. “My passion has always been to train good doctors—to help them become ethical, competent, professional physicians.” At NYU, she revamped the medical-education program, brought favorable publicity to the institution, and bolstered its reputation.

These efforts have earned Bernstein recognition from her professional peers. In March 2009, she was voted the American Psychiatric Association’s president-elect. She will take office as APA’s 137th president in May 2010.

Leader of the Profession

Misperceptions about psychiatry and mental illness, exemplified by actor Tom Cruise’s public criticisms of antidepressant medications, don’t just occur among laypeople, Bernstein notes. Many in the medical profession fail to recognize mental illnesses as serious disorders, she says. “Stigma is a big issue; it was one of the reasons I didn’t go into psychiatry right away.” Misinformation abounds because much less is known about the brain than about other organs, Bernstein notes. “The brain is the last frontier in medicine.”

Bernstein has worked to achieve a greater appreciation for psychiatry among future physicians. Recalling her four-year tenure at the helm of Columbia’s medical student education in psychiatry program, she says, “I can say with pride that a large number of the cadre of students that entered P&S went into psychiatry when they finished four years later.”

Bernstein has been active in APA since her days as a second-year resident. She became involved in the association “for the same reasons that drew me to medical-student education and training—to help engage the public and increase understanding about mental illness and treatment.”

As a resident, Bernstein was concerned about overcrowding in psychiatric emergency rooms and patient transfers between hospitals. She joined APA’s New York County District Branch and was elected co-chair of the residents’ committee. She served in the APA’s assembly for six years, and also chaired committees on medical student and graduate education and the Institute on Psychiatric Services for the organization.

“I gradually did more and more” on behalf of the association, Bernstein recalls. She was elected to the board of trustees as trustee-at-large, treasurer, and vice president.

“It’s a very big honor to be president-elect at this critical point for health care in the United States,” says Bernstein. Her priorities for her term include addressing the lack of appropriate reimbursement for mental-health services despite Congress’ passage of the mental-health-parity bill and fighting discriminatory practices that restrict patients’ access to mental-health care and substance-abuse treatment.

Agent of Change

Bernstein’s experience as a political-science major at Bryn Mawr during the turbulent 1960s—when “the whole world was turning upside down”—prepared her for her later professional activism. “We were busy trying to change the world,” she recalls. “Many of us came out of the ’60s with a sense that we could make a difference.” This desire to bring about change inspired Bernstein’s involvement with APA. “I want to make the public aware that mental illnesses are real—and that they are treatable.”

In her work with residents in all medical specialties, Bernstein stresses the need to assess patients’ mental health as well as their physical health. “It’s a lot of fun to work with my medical colleagues and educate them and their residents.”

In addition to her teaching and medical duties, Bernstein maintains a private practice, consisting primarily of patients she’s been seeing for many years. She and her husband, also a psychiatrist, are the parents of an 11-year-old daughter. “I like to be busy,” Bernstein says. “I have a lot of energy, and I like to be engaged and involved.”

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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