OPCA Annual Awards of Excellence: Lifetime Achievement Award

Ruth Anne McGovern (she/her), Former Chief Medical Officer, NARA Northwest

Ruth Anne is retiring this week from the Chief Medical Officer position at NARA NW after dedicating her whole career in medicine to serving the underserved. She has touched the lives of so many of her Native coworkers and patients. During her career at NARA, she served as a primary care provider for 24 years, as a local and national leader for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, and as the clinical advisor for multiple CDC public health grants at NARA including the Breast & Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, Colorectal Cancer Control Program, and the WISEWOMAN cardiovascular disease risk reduction program. During the Public Health Emergency, she stepped up as the Chief Medical Officer when the agency needed her. In that position she provided guidance for the efforts of our medical teams, safely getting care to our patients and vaccines into arms as COVID disproportionately infected and caused the death of AI/AN people.

Ruth Ann McGovern accepts her lifetime achievement award as a part of OPCA's Annual Awards of Excellence

Ruth Anne McGovern accepts her Lifetime Achievement award as a part of OPCA’s Annual Awards of Excellence

Long before social determinants of health were labeled as such, she was mobilizing teams of people to remove the many barriers our patients had to getting the care they needed to live their best lives. She worked evenings and weekends to make sure our patients had access to care. She connected patients to resources for transportation. She acknowledged past trauma and built trust with those she served. She found free and low-cost resources to provide patients with the tools they needed to be successful in the self-management groups she lead- pill boxes, measuring cups, food journals, blood sugar logbooks, diabetes alert necklaces, exercise equipment, and gym memberships. She also knitted hats and made quilts to be used as raffle prizes in these groups. Patients came for health education, but they also wanted a chance to win one of the many beautiful handmade items she donated.

In 2005, she created comprehensive one-stop shop Diabetes Care clinics because she knew our patients lived complicated and busy lives, sometimes in unstable housing, living with food insecurity, managing chronic conditions, caring for grandkids, elders and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. In these one stop clinics, our patients living with diabetes could get an eye exam, foot exam, immunizations, labs, medication adjustments and refills, diabetes education, nutrition and exercise education, an oral health exam and depression screening all in around three hours. And she worked at every clinic. These clinics continue to this day.

Whether it was taking care of moms and babies, helping people live with or prevent chronic disease, or making sure everyone had access to immunizations and cancer screenings, she was always involved. Long before patient centered care was the focus of our work, she was modeling that and teaching all of us as we worked alongside her. Long before integrated, team-based care was acknowledged as an evidenced based best practice, we were offering it at NARA NW with Ruth Anne at the helm. Before we knew what a closed loop referral was, we were making sure our patients made it to their specialty care appointments. Just by being her, she motivated all of us to be better health care professionals and people. And that is the legacy she leaves to the community we serve at NARA.

Here is a quote from an American Indian coworker of 24 years:
“Thank you for dedicating your career to improving the health and wellness of our community. Your patients love and respect you and they consider you family. The work you have done has closed the gap on health disparities, especially those related to diabetes in American Indians and Alaska Natives. We will be forever grateful for your service at NARA NW.”

Every decision Ruth Anne made as a leader at NARA has always been driven by improving health equity and social justice for our patients. No ego, or emotion, just hard work to ensure our patients always had access to the high-quality medical care they deserved.

Submission written by Alison Goerl, Chronic Disease Program Director, NARA Northwest