Dr. Rupali Das' Interview with Dr. Donna Baytop

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In honor of Black History Month, WOEMA features an interview with Dr. Donna Baytop, a past president and veteran member of WOEMA. Dr. Baytop was interviewed by Dr. Rupali Das, co-chair of the JEDI Committee.

Read the special edition article below or listen to the entire fascinating interview of Dr. Baytop on WOEMA's podcast channel.

Dr. Donna Baytop is an inspiration, mentor, and survivor who has confronted life’s challenges by meeting them head-on.

She recently retired from her roles as Regional Medical Director for Caterpillar Inc. and Worldwide Medical Director for Solar Turbines, positions she held for nearly 35 years. She remains very busy in retirement, serving as a member of the Residency Advisory Peer Review Committee for the General Preventive Medicine residency at the University of California, San Diego. She also serves on the national board of the University of Florida Foundation and is on the Board of Directors for the Ebony Pearls Foundation that serves the San Diego community. Dr. Baytop earned a Bachelor's degree in pharmacy at the Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy, now known as the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Institute of Public Health. She received her MD degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine and completed her residency in Family Medicine at the University of Connecticut, with an emphasis on urban family medicine, preventive health programming, community health programs, and primary secondary health education and community-wide screening to underserved populations in the Hartford region.

Career as an Occupational Medicine Physician

Dr. Baytop was introduced to Occupational Medicine when she was offered an opportunity in employee health services as an assistant medical director at an insurance company, Connecticut General. Rather than being in an administrative position typical for insurance carriers, she worked in a clinic that provided health maintenance exams, routine preventive medical care, and employee health services to 7,500 company employees. The clinic had 72 beds, an OB/Gyn clinic, eye clinic, physical therapy, clinical laboratory, radiology, and dental services among others. It was eye-opening as she realized that a medical department could be operated inside a company to serve its employees.

Dr. Baytop was then recruited to San Diego by Solar Turbines and asked to design an occupational medicine program in-house. She remained with the company throughout her long career, almost unimaginable today, for three reasons. First, because she was able to effectively practice preventive medicine. Additionally, she was supported by senior management and encouraged to be innovative, expand ideas, and try out new concepts in delivering occupational medicine. Finally, she was able to make sure that people came first and safety was paramount. Dr. Baytop was able to make significant differences in international operations by implementing protocols and collaborating with local health care providers.

Making a Difference

Throughout her career, Dr. Baytop has given back to communities and helped minority physicians in medicine. As a medical student at the University of Florida, Dr. Baytop helped to develop a summer studies program that outlined and addressed challenges faced by minority medical students entering medical school so that they would be fully prepared to hit the ground running in the fall when they entered medical school. She remains proud of that program, which lasted for 16 years after she graduated from medical school. In 2014, Dr. Baytop received her alma mater’s highest honor when she was named to the University of Florida College of Medicine Hall of Fame.
Throughout her career she faced situations “that a professional would love to have. You know, you get that interesting case or you get an opportunity to help someone that you didn't realize, and the resources are made available that allow you to be helpful and occupational medicine makes a difference.”

Making a difference in individual workers’ lives left lasting memories. Dr. Baytop recalls one pregnant worker who went into preterm labor in Angola, the second poorest country outside of Haiti at that time. Dr. Baytop was successful at arranging an air ambulance to airlift the pregnant worker to a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the worker was supported for six weeks, allowing her to give birth to a healthy baby girl. Four years later, Dr. Baytop ran into the worker at an airport in Dubai and saw a picture of the baby, by then four years old. She describes the experience as a “reward beyond comprehension."

Career Challenges

Dr. Baytop’s successful career was no easy ride. Her greatest challenge is what she termed “the perception of reality,” meaning that other people’s expectations of our behavior are defined by the way they perceive us. In Dr. Baytop’s case, she explains that “the reality is that I'm an African-American woman and a physician.” She felt that while African-American women are expected to deal with stereotypes that they encounter and be limited by them, she never gave in to others’ expectations. “I always did the opposite,” she says, adding “that's that protest spirit in me.” She gives an example of when she interviewed for a spot in a residency program and was asked what she would do if a white patient did not want to be seen by her as a black doctor, a question that most would find unacceptable today. Instead of answering, she managed to get the questioner to disclose their own bias and made the residency program director aware of the inappropriate question. A “white physician stands up in the morning, doesn't think about getting a question regarding whether or not they will be resisted because of the color of their skin.”

Dr. Baytop challenged not only racial stereotypes but gender discrimination as well. When she began her residency, all women scrubbing into surgery, whether nurses or residents, were required to wear a dress smock. She refused to do so and, much to the delight of the female nurses, was successful in changing the dress code for everyone, males and females alike, to gender-neutral scrub pants.

Role Models

Dr. Baytop’s credits her family for being her primary mentors and role models. The youngest of seven, she has highly accomplished and professionally successful older brothers and sisters who were both resilient and talented. Her father became a pro golfer at the age of 18 in 1927, a year after Black History week was dedicated by Carter G. Woodson. She also recalls her mother saying that “tough things are given to tough people, because they know you [sic] can solve it,” encouraging her and preparing her to face life’s challenges.

Changes in Occupational Medicine

Dr. Baytop has been a WOEMA member for 35 years and over the years her colleagues have become her “go-to resource to help stimulate new ideas, new innovations, maintain the state of the art, the highest level of excellence in the practice of occupational medicine.” She is a past president of WOEMA as well as a past WOHC chair. WOEMA first developed its website during the year she was president, in the late 1990s. Occupational Medicine has changed a great deal since Dr. Baytop first joined WOEMA and entered the field, primarily for the better. The shift has been away from corporate medical directors to smaller in-house collaborative teams and outsourcing occupational medicine services. Doctors now must be trained in business practices and need to be innovative in the delivery of occupational medicine services, remaining aware that the patient is not just an individual but part of “an entire social and workplace history.”

Dr. Baytop advises medical students and residents today to spend time “developing who you are and what you want out of the profession that you’re looking to go into. What is it you want to focus on? Then endeavor to do your training in such a way that you get the most out of those who are professors or professional or educational mentors who are offering advice as such. Seek them out and look for them.” This next generation of physicians, she feels will enhance the impact of occupational medicine by harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence, collaboration, and creative entrepreneurship, rather than striving for the few remaining corporate medicine positions.

Black History Month

For Dr. Baytop, Black History Month commemorates the racism, discrimination, and other injustices that a lot of people have experienced over hundreds of years. And it also illustrates the positives: people are resilient and can overcome the obstacles placed in front of them. As we navigate this new age, she advises us to never accept the status quo and always ask the five whys. As we ask those questions, we resolve to make things better for everyone.

The entire fascinating interview is available on WOEMA's podcast channel.