Karen Winkfield, MD, PhD

Karen Winkfield, MD, PhD

Executive Director | Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance

Ingram Professor of Cancer Research | Department of Radiation Oncology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

A trained vocalist, Karen Winkfield started college as a music major, but it's her work addressing health disparities that has the medical community singing her praises.

Ultimately, she majored in biochemistry at Binghamton University in New York before heading to Duke University to earn both a medical degree and doctorate. "During my second year, I had an encounter with a woman who was hospitalized with complications from cervical cancer," Winkfield recalled. "She was terrified, and as a medical student, I had more time than other team members. We bonded, and it solidified my interest in oncology."

However, it was the large gap in outcomes, particularly between Black women with breast cancer and their White counterparts, that launched her lifelong work in health equity. In the beginning, she explained, "I wanted to use basic science to elucidate the biology behind cancer disparities." Her research stalled when she was unable to collect enough biospecimens, despite being at a large academic center. "It made me realize that even if there was a cure for cancer, there were systemic barriers in place that would prevent everyone from gaining access to that cure," she said.

After an internship in internal medicine at Duke, Winkfield headed to Harvard for residency in radiation oncology. Following training, she stayed on as faculty at Harvard Medical School as an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Crediting numerous individuals with helping shape her career, Winkfield noted two from her time in Boston have had a major impact on her work. "Dr. Abram Recht at Harvard/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical center is one of my longest-standing mentors in the field," she said. "An incredible role model, I have adopted many of the lessons I have learned from him into both my clinical practice and in the way I mentor others. And I must mention Dr. Bev Moy, breast oncologist at Mass General Hospital," Winkfield continued. "She opened up so many doors for me that enabled me to take my health equity work to the next level."

Returning to North Carolina in 2016 to lead cancer equity programming at Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center, Winkfield recently made the move to Nashville. "This was an opportunity for me to engage the community around health and well-being by being part of an alliance between two world-class institutions and work on building institutional capacity to support the community's goals for health equity," she said of her new position with Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

A national reckoning has heightened the desire for change. COVID and the death of George Floyd increased awareness of disparities across the spectrum - from health and housing to policing and educational access. "People have been struck by the fact that communities of color have been so disproportionately affected. People didn't even want to hear about it (before), but people's eyes have been opened," said Winkfield. "The health of your neighbor impacts your health, as well."

While she loves the technical aspects of radiation oncology, Winkfield said her joy comes from personal engagement. "It truly is a privilege to be a part of an individual's cancer journey; there's nothing like it. But I have felt compelled to engage others in this quest for health equity," she explained. "Community engagement is vital to ending health disparities."

Engagement is also the most difficult aspect of her work. "I know that sounds weird, but what I love most is actually one of the most challenging things. It takes time to develop trusted relationships. And in medicine and business, time is money. Very few institutions want to invest in the relationship-building that is required to truly make a difference in communities."

The collaborative spirt ingrained in Nashville was part of what drew her to this new post. The city's restaurant and entertainment scene didn't hurt either. "I am a foodie! I love good food and great bourbon ... mix that in with some live music, and I'm in heaven," Winkfield said with a laugh. She'll have plenty of opportunities to sample her favorites in Nashville and on trips to New York to visit daughter Ashley.

Widowed three years ago, husband Jeffrey Walker's health battle changed how she approaches patients and underscored the urgency of her work. "I am honored to have a national platform that helps bring awareness to the issues and, more important, engages the community to strategize on ways to collaborate to end inequities in health and healthcare," Winkfield said. "The only way to make sustainable change is together."