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Fall 2013

Connecting the Dots

Date: October 1, 2013

Planned Parenthood is poised to be a primary care “medical home” for women, says Cullins.
Planned Parenthood is poised to be a primary care “medical home” for women, says Cullins.

As vice president for external medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Vanessa E. Cullins ’83 is at the center of a rapidly changing health care environment. Her mission, she says, is to make sure the communications, public policy, and medical services components of the national organization understand each other and are working together to best provide health services, education, and advocacy.

“These various functions sit in different divisions and within those divisions you have multiple departments. What I try to do is connect the dots to coordinate things,” says Cullins, who was awarded a Distinguished Medical Alumna Award at the 2013 Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association Biennial Meeting.

 Planned Parenthood, founded in 1916, is the health care provider of choice for millions of women, with more than 800 health clinics operated by 74 independent affiliates. Its services, focused around reproductive health, include cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and assistance with contraception. While some women visit Planned Parenthood just a few times in their lives, others rely on the organization as their primary provider, Cullins notes.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is expected to increase by approximately 30 million the number of people with health insurance, she says, burdening a health system that is already struggling with a workforce shortage. “We're here to help. We have the ability to provide primary care services for reproductive-age women”—freeing capacity in the system to care for men and children. Cullins notes that the ACA is changing the “conceptual framework” of medical care, requiring that organizations work together, with a primary care provider as the “medical home.” Planned Parenthood can be that home, she believes.

Emergency contraception is another issue on the front burner for Cullins. In May, the Food and Drug Administration made morning-after contraceptives available over the counter, with no age restriction. The decision, which she hailed as good news, means she must work to make sure all parts of Planned Parenthood understand what it means.

“Not only do all our medical folks need information about that, educators need education about that, our public policy people, and our consumers in general need to have that information,” she says.

Cullins earned her undergraduate degree at Spelman College, and has an MPH from Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After completing her medical training at Hopkins (internship, residency, and fellowship), she joined the OB/GYN faculty at Hopkins, and also served as acting director of Baltimore City’s Bureau of Primary Care and Reproductive Health. She joined Planned Parenthood in 2001.  Karen Nitkin