Growing up, Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett remembers watching her mom, a nurse, take care of a relative with AIDS. At the time, people with the disease were completely written off by society, she recalls. Witnessing her mom’s empathy toward him and other patients is what made her want to go into medicine.
This past fall, Dr. Anderson-Burnett brought a wealth of experiences to Barnard’s campus to serve as the Director of Clinical Services and Quality Improvement. In her new role, she will focus on improving care and wellness for the community and be one of the brains behind the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being, set to open its new home on campus next school year.
“I want people to feel whole. I want to make sure that they know that I value them as a human,” she says of lessons learned from her mom. “As a Black woman, I have experienced healthcare at its worst — and also, ironically, at its best, because I’ve had advocates who stepped in on my behalf.”
This empathy-centered approach to care became a value she carried throughout her medical training and career. After receiving her M.D. from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Anderson-Burnett went on to pursue a Ph.D. in addiction neuroscience, looking at how those with depression have a higher proclivity for opioid addiction.
It was at this time that she started to see the fault lines in the healthcare system more clearly. Why is so much money being spent on adult care instead of preventive care? she wondered. This was a “pivotal time” in her life, she says, that directed her toward a residency in pediatrics. “I think for me, medicine has always been about ‘How do I help the most vulnerable populations, the most marginalized populations?’”
As she continued her training, other fissures in the system began to present themselves, such as how long-acting reproductive contraception was disproportionately marketed to Black and Brown youth, raising the question “Who is fit for reproduction, and who is not?” Patient-centered contraceptive counseling is now central to her work. “Really talking to the patient, understanding them, and [encouraging] shared decision-making that centers their voice first is important to me,” she says.
While she tackles the big-picture initiatives, Anderson-Burnett will also be on hand to meet students’ everyday clinical needs by providing vaccines, lab assessments, prescriptions, and more.
Only a few months into her new position — she started in November 2022 — Anderson-Burnett has already begun to make strides. Among her first moves was to expand the medications Barnard offers in its 24/7 vending machine in Brooks Hall.
“What really struck me on my day when I interviewed here was that there’s Plan B for $8 in the vending machine. That is a phenomenal innovation,” she says. After starting, Anderson-Burnett wanted to enhance the vending machine with student needs in mind. If they are looking at screens all day for class, eye drops could be a good addition, she contended. And with Plan B already available, pregnancy tests should also be offered, she thought. So Anderson-Burnett and her team added the two items, along with others, such as urinary tract infection tests and hydrocortisone cream.
Anderson-Burnett has also honed her clinical expertise to shape the Primary Care Health Service’s approach to trauma-informed care. “Trauma-informed care really turns the paradigm from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” she says. The PCHS staff works closely with students to ease discomfort during visits that incorporate sensitive examinations by offering aromatherapy, calm music, stress balls, and heat packs.
Anderson-Burnett looks forward to having a “true hub on campus” for students, faculty, and staff with the opening of the Francine LeFrak Center. It will be a place where a wide range of issues — including food poverty, menstrual poverty, and financial well-being — can all be addressed under one roof, she says.
Her lifelong passion and advocacy for health justice have prepared her for Barnard. “[My experience] set me up for this opportunity now,” she says, “to really make a difference and add to the amazing work that’s being done here.”