As a young child, public health expert Dr. Carissa Etienne learned the harsh reality of maternal mortality and it drove her to change the odds for women. Decades later, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and regional director for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO) continues her quest to progress the global healthcare system. She will share her determination — to lessen inequities and push for equal access — at the May 22 Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM) Commencement Ceremony, encouraging future physicians to join the cause.
“Much in healthcare has changed but much has remained the same,” explained the lifelong champion of primary healthcare. “We have longer life expectancies, have overcome many diseases, reduced child and maternal mortality, and increased health awareness. But, despite the work and commitment to ensure health for all in 1978, we haven’t achieved it. Healthcare is not seen as a priority yet by governments and leadership at the international level because they do not recognize how much it contributes to the economy. So public investments in healthcare remain poor. The world needs resilient health systems in which everyone has access to good quality healthcare. It should not be a privilege; it must become a right.”
Raised in a Dominican village, Dr. Etienne remembers a childhood home where neighbors became family to be cared for and there was a quiet yet powerful sense of belonging, community and faith. Her parents reinforced the importance of education, an area in which she excelled. Skipping a few primary grades and ambitious as ever, Dr. Etienne earned scholarships to attend college, medical school and post graduate studies. She returned to her hometown to begin her career at 24 years old. “I was one of two female doctors in Dominica at the time,” she said, adding that challenges from male counterparts only drove her to further succeed. Her desire and potential inspired superiors to quickly move her into a leadership role.
“It was tough to be new to clinical medicine and be thrust into management, but I had a flair for it. It gave me greater insight into people’s lives and the way they lived.” It also provided an awareness of the gaps in the worldwide healthcare system and equipped her to begin engaging on a regional and global scale with PAHO and WHO.
“Working for these organizations appealed to me because I could connect my own desire and ambition to serve people and ensure they have adequate healthcare, and also figure out how to make a difference across the globe.” While her list of accomplishments is quite lengthy, Dr. Etienne is most proud of establishing primary healthcare in Dominica and continuing that momentum in other countries worldwide, as well as developing an impactful 2010 WHO world health report that capitalized on the importance of universal health coverage. She has earned many honors including her country’s highest award, the Dominica Award of Honour in 2015, which recognized her work in public health and international affairs locally and internationally for nearly 40 years.
Though not her direct focus, Dr. Etienne and her team helped prepare leaders across the country for the COVID-19 pandemic. After hearing about unusual occurrences in China in December 2019 and returning from a WHO assembly, she recalls reaching out to heads of state before it was declared a public health emergency. “It had been 100 years since our last significant pandemic, but we needed to be prepared,” she said in reference to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
To stay proactive, she engaged her team to reconstitute a task force and refresh a pandemic response plan created in 2006 that was modified to include lessons learned in 2009. Their foresight ensured that laboratory personnel across the region were trained to use the COVID-19 PCR diagnostic tests and had adequate supplies before countries began closing their borders in March. “It was amazing what my team was able to do because we put our minds together and worked collaboratively.” In recent times, Dr. Etienne and her team have supported countries in the Americas to successfully combat many outbreaks and epidemics, including Zika and Chikungunya in the Americas, Cholera in Haiti, Yellow Fever in Brazil and Measles in Venezuela.
Dr. Etienne now resides in Washington, DC with her husband of 44 years whom she describes as “patient and caring.” The couple shares three grown children and three granddaughters. “We have a very tight family,” she said. “They are everything to me.” The healthcare advocate remembers a time when her then six-year-old son said her absence affected his event outcome. “That’s when I knew that despite my busy travel schedule, I would always be present for significant events in their lives. Work is important but devoting time and attention to my family is the most important.”
Hear Dr. Carissa Etienne
Dr. Etienne will address RUSM’s graduating class during the university’s 2021 Virtual Commencement on Saturday, May 22 at 11:00 am ET. The event will be streamed on RUSM’s Facebook and YouTube pages. For questions or more information, please email the Events Team.