Postbac Alumna Dedicated to Educating and Empowering Expectant Mothers
“I want women to recognize red flags, both in their personal history and also in our healthcare system.”
Dr. Linda Burke '82PBPM, an obstetrician-gynecologist and longtime advocate for maternal healthcare, has dedicated her career to educating and empowering women on navigating pregnancy, from recognizing risks to encouraging them to assert their agency if something seems wrong. With years of clinical experience behind her, as well as a background in social work, she parlayed her knowledge into educating expectant mothers through a series of YouTube videos, blogs, and her book The Smart Mother’s Guide to a Better Pregnancy: How to Minimize Risks, Avoid Complications and Have a Healthy Baby.
The question then became—where do I get the credentials I need to become a physician? And Columbia had this wonderful Postbac Program for students like me.
A career in obstetrics wasn’t always her goal—in fact, obstetrics seemed to find her. With a degree in sociology from the City College of New York and a master’s from the Columbia University School of Social Work, Dr. Burke was ready to take care of medically underserved communities as a social worker. But on a hot, New York City summer night, everything changed. “When I saw my first delivery as a volunteer at Harlem Hospital, that was it—I knew I had to do that,” she said.
As fate would have it, obstetrics also runs in Dr. Burke’s family. Her maternal ancestors, dating back to the early 1800s and her great-great-grandmother, were all midwives. Feeling inspired about discovering her true calling and the journey she was about to embark on, one aspect of this new path lingered in Dr. Burke’s mind: “The question then became—where do I get the credentials I need to become a physician? And Columbia had this wonderful Postbac Program for students like me.”
Not only did Dr. Burke find her way to Columbia’s Postbac Premed Program, she also found a tight-knit community of fellow students who helped each other along the way. “I found a tribe,” she said. “There was a small group of African American students and we bonded, we studied together, and spent many nights in the library at P&S [Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons].”
The collaborative nature of her social work background was to her benefit as a Postbac student and among her tribe. “It’s important to study with different people because you see the same problem, but you look at the problem from your unique perspective,” she said. “When you have five opinions as opposed to one, it really helps in terms of learning the subject matter.”
Dr. Burke felt that the Program’s high standards and overall structure did an excellent job of preparing her for medical school. “I did not feel lost at GS, and that was a blessing,” she said.
Throughout her career, from medical school at the Boston University School of Medicine and her residency at Harlem Hospital to present day, Dr. Burke has observed the prevalence of preventable maternal deaths and stillbirths. “I kept seeing preventable mistakes, things that happened but did not have to happen,” she said.
Following the tragic death of a sorority sister due to preeclampsia, she felt compelled to take action. “I wanted to empower women in terms of ‘Ok, here’s what you need to look for and if you see this, then you need to do that.’”
The problems in women’s healthcare are complex, impacted by the industrialization of the healthcare system through managed care, unclear guidelines and teaching practices, implicit bias, and clinical incompetence. Dr. Burke explored many of these issues in depth by conducting peer reviews and root cause analyses of medical malpractice cases that came under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The disconnect between doctors and their patients is exacerbated by the lack of representation, not only in obstetrics and gynecology, but in the medical field as a whole.
I wanted to empower women in terms of ‘Ok, here’s what you need to look for and if you see this, then you need to do that.'
“You tend to see the same things happening over and over and over again, so the problems are multifactorial. Representation, especially as it relates to African American women and women of color, is appalling. We are 2% of the workforce and 15% of babies that are born in this country are babies that look like me, and yet you only have 2% of someone who looks like me to manage them. And so there’s a cultural disconnect. All of these things are part of the problem,” said Dr. Burke.
Her efforts to increase awareness of risk factors and promote diversity in the field have helped bring about improvements—during Dr. Burke’s time as a physician, there were marked decreases in the infant mortality and stillbirth rates. But there is still plenty of work to be done.
Through her sorority, she works to address these issues by promoting STEM programs at schools in underserved communities, and consults with university deans and administrators directly to advocate for diversifying the student body and future workforce. She’s currently setting up a virtual consultation practice, where women will be able to discuss questions, concerns, and strategic plans, or obtain a second opinion. The second edition of her book is also in the works with updated information to help women address their healthcare and pregnancy concerns.
For those pursuing a career in medicine or as an OB-GYN specifically, Dr. Burke emphasized that helping patients feel heard and comfortable should be a priority. “Being pregnant or even having an exam is one of the most vulnerable times in your life, and it's not cookie cutter,” she said.
Having clear intentions, values, and motivations for becoming a physician is key to success and making a difference in the medical field. “It is important to understand what you mean to this patient as their professional,” she said. “You have to be able to put your ego aside and be humble for the greater good of the patient.”