2008 Humanitarian Award - Carol A. Ritter, MD ’83
Ritter aids indigent, champions peers
Classes represented in this story: ’83
Sadly, in the last two years, Carol A. Ritter, MD ’83, lost both her mother and father. While sifting through mementos among her parents’ effects, Dr. Ritter found the personal statement she had written for her application to the Medical College of Wisconsin. In it, she had declared her desire to help the underserved through medicine.
Seeing those words sparked a realization that nearly 25 years after her medical school graduation, she was living out those aspirations of her youth. Through her efforts to provide care to those without means, Dr. Ritter has earned the 2008 alumni Humanitarian Award. Despite her many trips abroad on medical missions in recent years and her stateside advocacy for tort reform, she was surprised to be chosen.
“I know since I’ve been doing this work how many doctors are involved with humanitarian efforts, and it warms my soul to see because it is a humanitarian profession we’re in,” she said. “So many of us have humanitarian awards in us. It’s a real honor but humbling because it’s just a drop in the bucket compared with what many other doctors do.”
The seventh of 10 children, Dr. Ritter was given a strong sense of giving by her family but said her focus was sharpened by her training in women’s health care as she studied to be an OB/GYN. Recognizing the disparity in health care, especially for women and children, around the world has led her to distant locales to change things for the better.
In 2004 and 2005, Dr. Ritter traveled to Honduras. She staffed a small-town clinic, delivering babies for women who had no pre-natal care while providing gynecological care for many others. Following the devastating tsunami of 2005, she spent two weeks in Sri Lanka multitasking in primary care, dermatology, gynecology and others. Her work took her to orphanages, where she saw the catastrophic toll of the disaster that took parents from children.
Last year included a medical and surgical expedition to Haiti. Dr. Ritter, a Major in the Maryland Defense Force, has also staffed medical missions to Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Air National Guard. Geography divides the places she has gone to help, but their plight binds them.
“There is a thread of similarity,” she said, “and that is that poverty keeps people helpless, and lack of education in health care, nutrition and prevention perpetuates that poverty.”
That thread also ties to struggling Americans in places like New Orleans, where Dr. Ritter traveled in 2006 and 2007 to staff a temporary clinic in the Ninth Ward, where the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina persists. Incidentally, these were also the only times in recent history that Dr. Ritter practiced obstetrics in the United States. She resigned her OB practice after her malpractice premiums rose 69 percent in one year.
“The whole situation was very confusing for me,” she said. “I felt betrayed. I thought, ‘how could it happen to me?’ But then I looked around and said, and if this is happening to me, it must be happening to other doctors as well.”
Indeed it was. From 2003-2004, her state of Maryland saw the largest rise in premiums nationally with a 132 percent increase. These experiences felt personally and by her peers nudged Dr. Ritter into the role of advocate for tort reform and thrust her into the foreign landscape of politics. She has met individually with lawmakers, given testimony before the Maryland Judicial Procedure Committee as well as in Washington, D.C., and has presented at hospitals, women’s groups and political rallies. The centerpiece of her efforts was the filming of a documentary about Maryland’s medical liability insurance crisis, If the Bough Breaks.
The film underscores how rising premiums are driving doctors from certain specialties, like obstetrics, and dissuading medical students from pursuing careers in those fields. Showing how this situation will lead to reduced access to care for patients may help reduce the frivolous lawsuits exacerbating the problem, Dr. Ritter said.
Watch the documentary
After the documentary aired, Maryland lawmakers put a $650,000 cap on liability and created a subsidy to pay for premium increases. The subsidy expired this year, but lawsuits are down, something for which Dr. Ritter can take some credit. In her mind, however, advocates have only exposed the tip of an iceberg capable of sinking U.S. health care.
“I worry about my kids’ future health care,” she said. “That’s why I’m working so hard. I think it’s important that politicians recognize that doctors have a humanitarian foundation, and many of our present laws prevent that initiative.”