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Risa Lavizzo-Mourey Biography

Parents Sparked Interest in Medical Career, Advised Government on Health Care Policies



A specialist in geriatrics, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey has made significant contributions to health care policy in the United States. In addition to maintaining a clinical practice and a teaching career, she has served on numerous committees and has advised the federal government on health care reform. In 2003 she assumed leadership of the country's largest health care philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which distributes more than $500 million annually to agencies and programs that focus on public health issues. In 2003 Modern Physician named Lavizzo-Mourey one of 25 "visionary doctors…who rattle the status quo by flexing their experience and reputations in a variety of disciplines—politics, quality, information technology, public health, philanthropy and business."

Parents Sparked Interest in Medical Career

Lavizzo-Mourey, who grew up in Seattle, credits her parents with nurturing her interest in becoming a doctor. "I was blessed to have two parents who were physicians," she told Chronicle of Philanthropy writer Domenica Marchetti, "so I grew up seeing what an incredible opportunity it is to be a physician." She also learned that there is a "tremendous need" for health care among underserved populations, including uninsured and low-income groups. "I saw that very clearly in my parents' practice," she recalled to Marchetti, "when they were practicing in fairly poor neighborhoods in the time before Medicare."

After one year at the University of Washington, Lavizzo-Mourey attended the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She was admitted to Harvard Medical School after completing her junior year of college, and received her M.D. in 1979. After completing her internship and residency in internal medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, she did additional training in geriatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. There she also completed postgraduate research as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar. She joined the university's medical school faculty in 1986. While pursuing an ambitious academic career, Lavizzo-Mourey also earned an M.B.A. in health care administration from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Lavizzo-Mourey held several distinguished positions at the University of Pennsylvania. She began as an assistant professor, rose to associate professor, and was later named the Sylvan Eisman Professor of Medicine and Health Care Systems. She also served as director of the university's Institute on Aging, and was chief of geriatric medicine at the medical school.

Advised Government on Health Care Policies

In 1992 Lavizzo-Mourey took a leave of absence from the University of Pennsylvania to join the Federal Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (now the Agency for Health Care Quality), where she served as deputy director until 1994. She also served on other federal advisory committees, including the Task Force of Aging Research, the National Committee for Vital and Health Statistics, and the Institute of Medicine's Panel on Disease and Disability Prevention among Older Adults. As a member of the White House Task Force on Health Care Reform, Lavizzo-Mourey chaired the working group on Quality of Care.

Among her particular concerns is the delivery of quality medical care to minority populations. In 2002 she coauthored an Institute of Medicine report, "Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care," that found that minorities are likely to receive lower-quality medical care than whites, regardless of income. In fact, evidence showed that this tendency occurs even when medical insurance, age, and the extent of the disease were comparable across race and ethnicities. According to Harvard Public Health Now, the report showed that "evidence suggests that bias, prejudice, and stereotyping by health care providers may contribute to differences in care."

Indeed, Lavizzo-Mourey herself had been treated dismissively when she brought her daughter, then aged two, to a hospital emergency room in Philadelphia. Though the child had symptoms that Lavizzo-Mourey knew to be serious, the resident physician who examined her said that the child was not ill. Only after Lavizzo-Mourey asserted her own medical training and demanded more tests did it become evident that the child had pneumonia. Such treatment, Lavizzo-Mourey stated in remarks quoted in Health Leaders, "is really very troubling" and must be addressed.

Became Head of Nation's Largest Health Philanthropy

In 2001 Lavizzo-Mourey became senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This organization had funded her earlier postgraduate research and, according to a Health Leaders article, had watched her career with increasing respect. As vice president, Lavizzo-Mourey took charge of the foundation's grant making in health care, much of which focused on treating and preventing substance abuse and improving care for patients with chronic illnesses. Upon the retirement of foundation head Steven Schroeder, Lavizzo-Mourey became president and chief executive officer of the foundation in January of 2003. She is the first woman to hold this position.

In an interview in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Lavizzo-Mourey noted that she has been interested in the "interface between public policy, clinical medicine, and business" since her days as a medical student. The expertise in this area that she gained while earning her Wharton School M.B.A. in health care administration, she observed, positioned her to become an effective consultant on public health policy. As an advisor to both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, she learned how to create effective cooperation across different agencies and how to set realistic expectations.

Lavizzo-Mourey told JAMA that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would continue to focus on its four "bedrock goals—ensuring access to quality care; improving the quality of care and support of people with chronic health conditions; reducing the harm caused by substance abuse; and promoting healthy communities and lifestyles." She outlined a plan to distribute funds through a portfolio system that would allow the foundation to evaluate programs more effectively, and also noted that the foundation's efforts to improve public health systems would help to strengthen their ability to respond to possible biological or chemical weapons attacks.

At a Glance …

Born on September 25, 1954, in Seattle, WA; daughter of Philip V. Lavizzo and Blanche Sellers Lavizzo, both physicians; married Robert J. Mourey, a physician, June 21, 1975; children: Rel, Max. Education: University of Washington, 1972-73; State University of New York-Stony Brook, 1973-75; Harvard Medical School, MD, 1979; Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, MBA, 1986.

Career: Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA, medical resident, 1979-82; Temple University Medical School, Philadelphia, PA, clinical instructor, 1982-84; University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, assistant professor of medicine, 1986-92, associate professor, 1992-97, Sylvan Eisman Professor of Medicine, 1997-2001, director of the Institute of Aging, chief of Division of Geriatric Medicine, 1984-1992, 1994-2001; Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center, associate chief of staff; Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, Rockville, MD, deputy administrator, 1992-94; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ, senior vice president and director, Health Care Group, 2001-2002, president and chief executive officer, 2003–.

Memberships: Association of Academic Minority Physicians; National Medical Association.

Awards: University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1970 Term Professor, 1992; American College of Physicians, fellowship; American Geriatric Society, fellowship; Alonzo Smythe Yerby Award, 2002.

Addresses: Office—P.O. Box 2316, College Road East and Route 1, Princeton, NJ 0853-2316.

While continuing with the foundation's basic work, Lavizzo-Mourey also hopes to expand efforts in several areas, including programs to meet needs of elderly patients; programs to address obesity; and measures to eliminate unequal treatment due to race or ethnicity. Her vision, she told JAMA, is that "everyone in this country has access to safe, effective, equitable health care when they need it, and that everyone gets a good start in life with a nurturing relationship that protects them from harm, including things like tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. That everyone has an opportunity for lifelong vitality, an opportunity for treatment if they are addicted, and that we promote a caring society and we keep our attention focused on the possible."



Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 8, 2002.

Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), April 16, 2003, pp. 1909-1911.

Modern Healthcare, August 5, 2002, p. 33.

Modern Physician, May 1, 2003, p. 26.


"Profile: Giving Spirit," Health Leaders, www.healthleaders.com (September 14, 2004).

"Risa Lavizzo-Mourey Named Head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation," Wharton Health Care Management Alumni, www.whartonhealthcare.org (September 14, 2004).

"Risa Lavizzo-Mourey: President and CEO," Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, www.rwjf.org (September 14, 2004).

"Lavizzo-Mourey Receives 2002 Yerby Award," Harvard Public Health Now, www.hsph.harvard.edu (September 14, 2004).

—E. Shostak

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