Doctors in the House

Good health is a family affair for Dr. Courtney Hollowell and Dr. Carmen Woods Hollowell. They met as teenagers while attending a medical conference with their doctor-fathers, following in their footsteps to provide specialized health care for men and women.

As Chairman of Urology for Cook County Health, the third-largest public hospital system in the country, Courtney oversees urology services for patients across Chicago and Northern Illinois. Among his honors is receiving the National Cancer Institute Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award.

Carmen is principal of the Woods Women’s Group in Park City, Illinois, and Vice Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology for Northwestern University North region.

Married for 25 years, the Hollowells have two sons. They spoke with WayMaker Journal about their family legacy, health literacy, and health equity.

WJ: Why did you go into medicine?

Carmen: For me, it was twofold. My parents never pigeonholed us; we really could explore anything and everything. But I got to see the intense satisfaction that my father enjoyed from his work, the feeling of purpose and giving back, and the pride that he took in really helping all people and giving everybody the same level and quality of care.

Combine that with the fact that I like people and I could have easily been a detective: I loved solving mysteries. When I married those two things, it was really natural, and it’s what I do now—you’re given bits and pieces of the puzzle and then you solve it.

You never know when your kindness, your encouraging words are just what that person needs to get them to the next level.

Courtney: I wasn’t the kid that says, I wanted to be a doctor ever since I can remember. Like most decisions, I grew into it. I enjoyed asking questions and had a very strong passion for science. But it was inquisitiveness that unlocked my love for lifelong learning. I saw myself as a future astronaut, a nuclear physicist, an engineer or possibly a surgeon.

I remember my father telling me, “If your dreams don’t scare you, maybe they aren’t big enough.” These early memories of encouraging words have stayed with me my entire life. Just watching him break down racial barriers in medicine—being the first doctor to train in surgical services at the Detroit Medical Center—served as an example of the man and a surgeon I strive to be. I’m lucky because my job isn’t work; it’s my passion.

WJ: You’re not the only ones in your family to have pursued careers in medicine, right?

Carmen: Correct. My father is an obstetrician and gynecologist. I’m the eldest of four, and my sister that’s directly underneath me is a triple-boarded physician. She is a forensic, child and adolescent psychiatrist in Atlanta.

Courtney: My father is a urologist. My brother who’s a year older than I am is also a surgeon. And my sister who is a year younger than me is a primary care doctor. I guess you could say my wife and I have medicine in our blood.

WJ: Where did you go to school?

Carmen: I went to Spelman College in Atlanta, and then to Meharry Medical College in Nashville. My father, my sister, and Courtney’s father all attended Meharry Medical College. Going to a historically Black college or university wasn’t a mandatory thing, but it’s kind of what you learned by osmosis [in our family].

You see the success that they bring, the undergirding, the confidence that they instill, and the environment is like lightning in a bottle. It’s very, very special. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings all went to HBCUs. I then trained in obstetrics and gynecology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Courtney: I went to the University of Michigan for undergrad. I received my medical degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where I had a full-ride research scholarship. I went on to do my general surgical and urology training at the University of Chicago, and continued as a clinical fellow in urologic oncology (prostate, bladder, and kidney cancer) at the University of Chicago.

WJ: What do readers, especially of color, need to know to ensure better health care for themselves?

Carmen: Part of that is things that we can address as people of color, and part is things that our allies are going to need to do. So, what can we do? We can be our own health advocate; we should ask questions. When someone tells us something, we ask: “What are the risks to this?” “What are the benefits to this?” “What are the alternatives to this?” We can begin to improve our health literacy, and if we don’t understand something, say so.

Certainly, lifestyle choices come into play, but really some of those are not of our own doing. If you live in an area where you have to take a considerable amount of transportation just to get fresh fruits and vegetables, you’re already behind, right?

So, we need allies to really invest in our communities, to invest in our health care systems, in our early education, in our schools. To me, it’s really multifactorial. And then I always bring it back to other physicians, and health care bias is real. It is an ugly truth that some folks may want to act like it doesn’t exist, but it does.

For example, with Black women and maternal mortality, we die at an alarming and much higher rate. And when you adjust for insurance, socioeconomic, and educational status, we still get worse care. We still get worse outcomes. We still don’t have our pain addressed. We still are not heard. We still are not validated.

And so, yes, certainly part of it is to say to the patient, “Be your own advocate.” But I also turn it back to my colleagues and say, “You have to recognize your unconscious bias, and we as doctors have to address it and really call it out.”

Courtney: There’s two things that really need to be unpacked with this question. First, we need to be active participants in our health care. Participating in preventative care, having a primary care doctor, and making good lifestyle choices all can go a long way in staying well.

Secondly, we should demand more from our health care system. When we look at education, for example, you can assess the student and determine the level of achievement that they’ve obtained, but you equally have to evaluate the level and quality of the teaching and resources that’s provided to that student, as well.

We have become keenly aware of the fact that the health care system shares a responsibility for the health of our community. And there’s a lot to be done to ensure quality health care for everyone. Having access to care, for example, may be the single most important factor for improving quality health care and patient outcomes. Unfortunately, almost 15% of the population is still uninsured.

Doctors in the U.S. are also caring for an increasingly diverse group of patients, and it is more important than ever to reflect that same diversity in medicine. Why is this important? Not only do patients many times seek out providers of the same ethnicity, but a diverse medical workforce has been shown to improve access.

African American physicians are far more likely to practice medicine in underserved communities and care for poor and minority patients. Additionally, having more physicians of color can help improve doctor-patient communication, trust, and health outcomes for patients. Quality health care is all about improving access and outcomes. So, for these reasons alone, we need to be improving the pipeline of Black physicians.

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that only 4% of doctors nationwide are African American, and patients notice their absence. African American doctors shouldn’t be a novelty; we must ensure that they are a reality.

WJ: You have talked about improving health literacy. Whose responsibility is that?

Carmen: It should be a shared model. It should be the government’s job to help and educate. Many people are part of the public school system, right? It’s state and federally funded. Hospitals could do a better job of outreach; they receive public funds. Insurance companies and insurers could do a better job. And physicians, we can do a better job, and by that, I mean speak in very plain language that’s transparent and easy to digest.

I personally use what’s called the teach back method, meaning if I say it to you and you can explain it back to me or explain it to your family, then you really have a very firm foundation. So, I think that’s a shared responsibility of which everybody should take ownership, but we just can’t assume that everybody comes in the same place because they come in at all different places when it comes to health literacy.

Where you get your health information from, particularly at a time point where information is ubiquitous, is so very important.

Courtney: Health literacy is the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information, which is needed to make appropriate health decisions. It’s those skills that are needed to navigate our complex health care system. And where you get your health information from, particularly at a time point where information is ubiquitous, is so very important.

The problem is good information can be harder to find. We’re more connected than we’ve ever been today, but we’re also more disconnected than we’ve ever been, as well. And a lot of us have fallen into our trenches of what we want to believe, and nothing can change our mind, and that’s a problem.

Carmen: But science isn’t political.

Courtney: I agree. It shouldn’t be political. Science is constantly evolving. And what we know today could and can change in the future.

Carmen: Science is fascinating. You have to adapt and pivot to keep up with the newest information. Our phones aren’t the same as they were 10 years ago, 15 years ago. They change, and what we’re able to do with them changes; everything changes.

Courtney: Health literacy requires a complex group of analytical and decision-making skills and the ability to apply these skills to health situations—like shared decision-making with your physician on possible treatment options, following the instructions on a prescription label, or understanding your doctor’s preoperative directions.

Carmen: Every day, thousands of patients are not taking their medications correctly because of poor health literacy. Parents mistakenly pour an oral antibiotic in their child’s ear instead of giving the liquid by mouth because it was prescribed for an ear infection. Some take too much medication or too little, others may take it at incorrect intervals or not at all because they feel better. Health literacy has been shown to be a strong predictor of a person’s health.

WJ: When someone gets sick in your family, do you give advice or do you say, “go to a doctor”?

Carmen: We give the advice, but we temper it with the understanding that, as a physician, you don’t know everything. So, when I’m outside of my expertise, many times I’ll get another opinion from someone who I know is a trusted expert in the area. But you de facto become the family and friends’ doctor.

WJ: Who have been some of the greatest influences in your life?

Courtney: The most influential people in my life have been the people closest to me. A lot of it comes from the family. Growing up in Detroit, the sixth of seven children, my parents were nurturing, and excellence was expected. My older brothers and sisters were defacto parental figures as well. I think I am who I am because of a number of those influences all coming together in a perfect order. My parents instilled in us that there was a lot to be done, and that we need to be off the bench and in the game, making a difference.

Carmen: I would echo that sentiment—my family and friends, my parents, my grandparents, my extended family, my siblings and my strong faith. But also, the teachers that saw something special in me and said, “You know, you can do it.” Really, nobody gets where they are alone. Everybody needs someone else. And you never know when your kindness, your encouraging words are just what that person needs to get them to the next level.

WJ: What about keeping your personal relationship alive?

Courtney: I’m honestly the luckiest man alive; I married the love of my life and best friend all wrapped up in one. My father consistently gives great advice. When asked his secret to a successful marriage, he told me to always remember to treat my wife like she’s my girlfriend. That way you always keep the spark alive in the marriage.

Carmen: We always make time each day for one another—to be present and connect, to recharge and center our relationship.

Between our families—my parents have been married now 54 years, and Courtney’s parents have been married 67 years—we have like 120 years’ worth of firsthand experience that helped shape our 25 years. We are thankful that they have been such a great example of what a loving marriage really looks like.