Best Black Doctors: Dr. M. Monica Sweeney
M. Monica Sweeney, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P. - A staunch advocate of prevention
M. Monica Sweeney, a physician with a master’s degree in public health and the distinction of a fellowship in the American College of Physicians, has served Brooklyn for the past 16 years, first as medical director and now as vice president of medical affairs at the Bedford Stuyvesant Family Health Center Inc. The center is a primary care facility offering a broad range of services, with special focus on Central Brooklyn residents who either are not insured or are underinsured. A long-time advocate of better community health-care systems, Sweeney is devoted to her work at the center. “I work in a health center because it comes closest to what my goal was by being a doctor, and that is helping people regardless of their ability to pay. … It affords me the opportunity … to establish the quality of care for many more patients than I could ever see in private practice,” she says.
The truth is Sweeney’s reach extends much farther than Brooklyn. Currently, she is serving her second term as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on H.I.V./AIDS, where she chairs the prevention subcommittee. The Council provides advice, information and recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services on programs and policies to promote effective prevention of H.I.V. and advance research on H.I.V./AIDS. The secretary, in turn, puts forward these recommendations to the president.
Sweeney has served on numerous boards and committees, including as president of Kings County’s Medical Society; chair of the Data Committee of the H.I.V. Planning Council of New York; co-chair of the Physician Prevention Advisory Council, New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute; and as a mayoral appointee to the H.I.V. Health and Human Services Planning Council. In addition, she is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York Medical School and a clinical assistant professor at the State University of New York Health Science Center. She is also author of the book Condom Sense: A Guide to Sexual Survival in the New Millennium.
As improbable as it may seem, Sweeney still manages to see patients. “I do a full practice in internal medicine, plus geriatrics. There is nothing that gives me more satisfaction than treating someone and putting him or her on the path of taking care of themselves,” she says. Taking care of one’s health is of particular importance in the Black community, where diseases—many of them treatable—take an unnecessarily large toll.
Take heart disease. “[The] largest killer in the African-American community today is cardiovascular disease, and Black women are four times more likely to die at an earlier age from cardiovascular disease than any other racial or ethnic group,” Sweeney says. And, she notes, “there are more African-American women with H.I.V. than all the other racial and ethnic groups of women combined.”
At the heart of the problem, Sweeney contends, is the fact that health is not a priority in America. “There are so many people with lives that are marginalized that health only gets attended to when it is threatened. Sixty-five percent of people who die before the age of 65 die because of conditions that could have been prevented by their health habits,” she says.
A passionate advocate of preventive medicine, Sweeney says she joined the Bed-Stuy center mainly because its leaders share her thinking. “The president and CEO believes in prevention. Yes, we diagnose, treat, comfort and cure when possible. But preventing disease is what we are about more than anything else. We can’t treat our way out of all of this bad health and bad outcomes,” she insists. “If I spend an hour with a patient, that leaves 23 hours for [that patient] to be in charge of [his or her] health. And if you are a good doctor, you try to be a partner with [that patient] and help them with the information that will help them be the best primary-care provider for themselves,” she muses.
Ironically, it is that very passion for preventive health care that may lead to Sweeney’s departure from the center, although she plans to be around when the center moves to its new building, which is currently under construction. “I would like to work with children at a younger age in this community to try to get them on a better path earlier. So I don’t want to stay here until the end; there are other things,” she says.