A Pioneering Doctor
In the late 1960s, when the future president of the American Medical Association expressed an interest in medicine, her high school guidance counselor advised her that women don’t go to medical school. Today Dr. Barbara McAneny ’73 is a nationally recognized leader in oncology treatment, and this June begins her term as president of the AMA, the fourth woman president and the first president from New Mexico.
A longtime resident of Albuquerque, McAneny fell in love with New Mexico when she did her fellowship there. She’s been politically active since early in her career, when she worked with other doctors to get the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act passed. “I learned when doctors work together for the benefit of patients we can do some pretty remarkable things. We can take on the tobacco lobby.”
Her main goals as AMA president include providing better and more accessible health care and insurance to all. “In the richest country on the planet, we ought to be able to deliver affordable health care to people. I’d also like to see more Americans have access to meaningful insurance. I’ve seen too many patients who survive their cancer and are then uninsurable for anything else.”
Her own oncology practice has a foundation that supports patients with nonmedical expenses such as rent, car and house repair, and buying food. “One of the things patients told me a long time ago is that cancer can be an economic disaster,” she says.
McAneny is also the recipient of a nearly-$20 million grant to duplicate nationwide what her practice has done — aggressively manage the side effects of cancer and its treatment early enough that it can be done in a doctor’s office. This not only cuts costs for everyone but also decreases hospitalizations, which can be emotionally and physically traumatic for patients.
The daughter of two professors at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville — her father was a physicist and her mother was a mathematician — McAneny was always a pioneer. Bored with high school and a few credits shy of graduating, she left high school at 16 after applying to and being accepted by Grinnell. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1969.
“In my high school classes I was the smartest kid in the room. At Grinnell I wasn’t, so I had to figure out how to work, and I’d never done that before.” It was also a magical time on campus. “We were all hippies then,” she recalls. “Late-night dorm discussions were about how do you want to make the world a better place, and that’s stayed with me.”
McAneny loved Grinnell, but after meeting and marrying her first husband (who was graduating), the two moved to Minneapolis in 1971, where she completed her undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Minnesota. She returned to Iowa College of Medicine where she was one of seven women out of 170 graduates in the 1977 University of Iowa Medical School class. “It was pretty competitive, so you had to outperform the men to be considered equal,” she says.
She discovered her specialty, oncology, when she rotated through the acute leukemia service. “I recognized that these patients were some of the most courageous people I’d ever met. You quickly get a window into their heart.”
Though much of her time today is spent on AMA leadership issues, McAneny still thrives on daily interactions with patients. “To help someone go through the scariest thing they’ve ever faced is rewarding,” she says. “You can feel like you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”