Imagine coming from a family of tinkerers: you, your mother, your father, even your siblings, all spent time hovering over electronic components and computer parts, trying to figure out how they work and what they do. Dr. Winston Price is of such a family. President-elect of the National Medical Association (N.M.A.), with more than 25,000 members, the country's oldest and largest organization of African-American physicians, Price turned his family's fascination into a dual career. "My mom always enjoyed electronics and my father was a senior electrician for the main post office in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was responsible for all their electronic mail systems," says Price, 55.
As children, Price and his four brothers were fascinated by their father's gauges and electronic testing equipment. While his brothers became tinkerers of machines, choosing careers in information technology and electrical engineering, Price became a tinkerer of humans. He received his medical degree in pediatric medicine from Cornell University Medical College in 1970. "I decided to pursue pediatrics because as a child, I wanted to help insects, small animals and children, and I felt they were an extension of my fascination for small living things," he explains. "I wanted to be their advocate."
He completed his residency at New York Hospital-Memorial Sloan-Kettering in 1978 and subsequently became the medical director for the pediatric ambulatory department at SUNY Downstate Medical Center Hospital in Brooklyn. A year later, he started his pediatric practice in an office at the hospital. Little did he know then that his family's propensity for tinkering would launch his career as a patient-management consultant.
In 1980, when personal computers were just becoming popular, Price tried to find a way to streamline his medical practice. He turned to his brother Cyril, who was an engineer at IBM at the time. "Together we created an electronic billing and patient-tracking system," Price explains. He saw dramatic improvements to his practice. "The success of my practice was instrumentally affected by the system we developed," he says emphatically. If this system worked for him, surely it would work for others, he believed.
With the zeal of a fresh convert, Price spread the word about the benefits of an effective patient-management system. The new system could not have been more timely. As many as 50,000 people a year are injured by medical errors, Price says. If doctors have an adequate patient-management system in place, these errors would be reduced considerably. Take patients who need the flu vaccine and whose medical records are maintained manually. First, each patient's card would be flagged by hand. Then the patient would be called to schedule an appointment. "This process may take several weeks to complete," Price explains. "But by installing an electronic outbound calling system, those patients needing the vaccine can be called automatically."
The system also provides for the receipt of accurate and timely lab results, and in the case of a drug recall, allows doctors to quickly search their patient databases and identify those taking the recalled drug.
In 2002, Price launched VCASTI International, a Brooklyn-based medical information systems and technology company for which he is the chief medical consultant. He has found, however, that not all of his clients are willing to embrace technology, nor do they see it as a vital part of their practice. "Many physicians who were trained in the 1960s through the 1980s are reluctant to make the transition to being computerized," Price says, sounding very much like the seasoned marketer accustomed to the hard sell.
Price puts the initial outlay required to create a computerized system at between $5,000 and $25,000 for solo practitioners, and more than several hundred thousand dollars for partnerships. "Sometimes it is difficult convincing physicians that an adequate patient-management system is beneficial to their overall practice," he laments.
Besides running a private practice and launching his own business, Price is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at SUNY Health Science in Brooklyn. His friend and colleague, Dr. Yvonnecris S. Veal, senior medical director for the New York metro area at the U.S. Postal Service, marvels at his ability to wear so many hats simultaneously. "Somebody truly imbued him with extremely high energy levels, competence and resilience!" Veal, who was president of N.M.A. in 1994, has known Price since the late 1970s.
Dr. Alfred Charles Gaymon, attending physician in the gastroenterology division of Harlem Hospital, adds: "Winston is a rare individual who has a unique combination of superior clinical skills and sharp business acumen, which is so necessary for leadership in today's market-driven health-care environment. He is the kind of person you'd like to have as a friend or brother, because you know that if he's on your side, you're going to win. Period."
For all that he does professionally, Price still finds time for civic and community activities. In 2002, Gov. George Pataki reappointed him to serve on the Administrative Review Board of the New York State Department of Health. He also serves on the department's five-member Appellate Board and is an outspoken advocate for programs to prevent child abuse and neglect, as well as domestic violence.
But he is most passionate about health-care issues affecting African-Americans, such as increasing minority children's consumption of dietary calcium and making sure they are immunized. "The rate of immunization coverage is 20 percent lower in African-Americans than in white children, due to [poor] access to health care and lack of health insurance," Price says. Besides socioeconomic causes, there are also cultural fears of vaccines and a general mistrust of the medical profession in the African-American community. For many Blacks, the seeds of that mistrust were planted with the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service used 399 unsuspecting Black men in the late stages of syphilis to study the disease. The men were never told what disease they were suffering from nor of its seriousness. Neither were they ever treated for syphilis. Instead, data for the experiment were collected from autopsies of the men.
While the mistrust is understandable, the price of shunning treatment for diseases such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately affects African-Americans, is much too high to pay, Price contends. And he still wishes to see more Black participants in clinical trials, although improving the outcome of such trials "requires a multifaceted approach. The N.M.A. has launched an initiative to encourage medical schools to hire more African-American researchers in the hopes that Black patients will feel more comfortable with professionals who look like them.
Another hot-button issue for Price is the high rate of obesity among adults and children. "More than 60 percent to 70 percent of the U.S. population will be obese by the year 2010," he says. He notes that Action for Healthy Kids, a grass-roots campaign organized by former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher to combat childhood obesity, is trying to make physical activity a part of the public school curriculum. But the same public school system has sacrificed physical education on the altar of improved math and reading scores, Price complains. "To what end is it to have a child read better now, when they'll emerge from school as unhealthy young adults with cardiovascular disease or renal failure," he argues, adding that if this trend continues, it will affect our society in more destructive ways than any terrorist act could.
Price is content that his own children have heeded the call to address the country's many social and economic disparities. They are pursuing different aspects of the medical profession: psychology, speech pathology, and even pediatric gynecology, he says with pride.
An avid basketball fan, Price also plays in tennis tournaments and collects African and Caribbean art during his travels. But a favorite hobby is building and fixing his own computers, and even dabbling in writing software programs. Indeed, the heart of the tinkerer still beats strongly within him.
By Bevolyn Williams-Harold