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March 22, 2023

Taking a Holistic Approach to Patient Care: A Conversation with Dr. Roberta Waite

By Aleena Dawer (H'24)

During our Conversations in Health: Global to Local class, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Roberta Waite, dean of Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and a leader in the field of global health. Dr. Waite is a highly regarded nurse leader who is known for her innovative and transformative strategies that fuse education, practice, research, and community.

With over 33 years of experience in behavioral health, nursing leadership, social and racial justice, and anti-racism, Dr. Waite's career is nothing short of impressive. She is also a passionate advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, serving on various committees and task forces dedicated to advancing these critical causes. Her work has had a profound impact on the nursing profession and beyond.

Dr. Waite has authored more than 70 referred publications and numerous book chapters while also serving on multiple committees and boards. She completed her doctorate in education at Widener University and her master's degree in nursing from University of Pennsylvania. She serves the community as a psychiatric mental health clinical nurse specialist.

As a student interested in the health field, I was eager to learn from her career trajectory and ask questions for future endeavors. What I found most inspiring about Dr. Waite's story was the emphasis she placed on community-based health and the importance of listening to people's voices in her work.

Dr. Waite emphasized that health is not just about providing care but also about addressing the social determinants of health. For example, she mentioned how diabetic patients may not continue their care or have continuity in treatment because they lack a refrigerator for insulin. In such cases, addressing the social determinants becomes as important as providing medication. Dr. Waite emphasized that understanding the community and its needs is crucial in providing effective health care.

One of the key takeaways from our conversation with Dr. Waite was the importance of speaking to the local community about their issues. She explained that assumptions are often made in the field of medicine, and it is essential to understand the context of the community to provide appropriate health care. By listening to the community, health professionals can tailor their approach to address the community's specific needs.

As a student who is a trained EMT and interested in emergency medicine, I was particularly fascinated by Dr. Waite's experience serving as a nurse expert for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's "Think Tank" to develop guidelines and benchmarks for trauma-informed care. The initiative aims to guide service providers statewide on what it means to be trauma-informed and healing-centered.

Based on our conversation, she shared how important it is to recognize that trauma-informed care is not just about treating physical injuries, but also addressing the psychological and emotional impact of traumatic experiences. This means taking a holistic approach to patient care and understanding that trauma can affect a patient's physical health, mental health, and overall well-being. It's essential to approach health care from a trauma-informed perspective, considering the whole person (cura personalis [care of the person]) and the context in which they live.

Dr. Waite's work also emphasizes the importance of listening to the local community when developing health care initiatives. We may have preconceived notions about what individuals need, but it's crucial to involve the community in the conversation to truly understand their unique challenges and experiences.

During the conversation, I asked Dr. Waite about the future of health care in addressing health disparities and promoting health equity. Her response was strong and inspiring: "It starts with us." Dr. Waite emphasized the importance of taking ownership of our own biases and assumptions while actively working to dismantle systemic barriers in health care. Every one of us has a role to play in promoting health equity and addressing disparities. Health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, and other providers, can do their part by ensuring that their practices are equitable and inclusive. This means addressing unconscious biases and ensuring that patients receive the same quality of care, regardless of their status.

Overall, Dr. Waite's experiences opened my mind to the diverse paths that health care can take and the importance of taking a holistic approach to patient care. Dr. Waite's career trajectory is a testament to the flexibility that medicine can offer. She started her career as a psychiatric nurse, but her passion for community-based health led her to work in global health.

In conclusion, our conversation with Dr. Waite left me inspired and further motivated to pursue a career in the intersection of social justice and global health. Dr. Waite's powerful statement that promoting health equity starts with us reminds us of the deeply personal and holistic nature of health, as well as the critical role we all have to play in shaping the future of health care.

Aleena Dawer (H'24) is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University studying global health with a minor in chemistry on the pre-medical track. She is a student in the Conversations in Health: Global to Local class.