Learning from Katherine Bianco, MD, Latinx Professor and Provider

“I am Latinx, and I’m a faculty professor at Stanford School of Medicine, so you can do it too,” Clinical Professor Katherine Bianco, MD, declares, “And I did it part-time. If you are in a setting where you are given the support that you need, you can thrive, and that’s why I am a female, Latinx professor at Stanford University.”

Hailing from Venezuela, Bianco was raised by doctors. However, Bianco’s own mother had a very unique career trajectory: It was not until after her divorce that Bianco’s mother pursued medicine. While raising three children, including Bianco, she completed medical school to become an OB/GYN. 

“I grew up going to the hospital, with nurses helping me with my homework. The hospital was like a second home. I was surrounded by a sense of commitment and service to people, and I was always very drawn towards helping people when they were sick,” Bianco says. 

Witnessing her mother face challenges as a single parent instilled a desire in Bianco to address gender disparities in health. She didn’t always know that she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and be an OB/GYN. Originally, she wanted to become a psychologist and focus on mental health. But upon learning how OB/GYNs directly serve female populations throughout the life span, Bianco knew being an OB/GYN would allow her to partner with and empower patients to make important reproductive choices while connecting with patients and learning their stories. 

Taking a holistic approach to obstetrics, Bianco’s specialty is maternal cardiac complications, and she is the Director of the Maternal Heart Program at Stanford Children’s Health and Stanford Health Center. She notes this is one of many areas in which you see reproductive health intertwine with other aspects of health. Many Americans are choosing to build their families later in life, which means that many who desire to be parents are at an age where they also experience obesity, diabetes, and other hypertensive disorders that affect cardiac function. Additionally, more people born with cardiac defects — about 3% of patients have birth defects, the leading cause in congenital heart defects — are reaching reproductive age and are ready to start families due to advances in surgery and medicine, something that was, Bianco notes, “unthinkable twenty years ago.” 

“I have the privilege of being there for all these parents and coordinate care for them using multidisciplinary approaches,” Bianco shares. “Helping these families achieve their dreams of becoming parents keeps me inspired. But I would never do it if it wasn’t at Stanford, because we have such an amazing and collaborative cross-disciplinary team with many specialties. It’s not just maternal-fetal medicine, it’s also cardiology, adult congenital cardiac, obstetric anesthesia, and cardiac anesthesia — in any one patient could have up to 50 health care providers looking after them and the fetus to carry them through pregnancy safely.” 

Proud To Be Latinx

In California, 40% of the patient population is Hispanic but only 6 percent of medical providers speak Spanish. “Being Latinx, being bilingual, I feel like it is my duty to communicate with patients of color,” she notes. Less than 3 percent of California’s physician population can claim what Bianco can, being both a woman and Latinx.

It’s not only about understanding the cultural backgrounds and their attitudes towards health, but also meeting patients where they are at: Starting with speaking the patient’s primary language. Bianco directs the School of Medicine’s Spanish Course — a nine-week learning rotation where students study medical Spanish and improve their proficiency in the language. The goals of the course is twofold: to foster bilingual doctors and to build the culture competence to address health disparities.

At the hospital, Stanford is making strides in this area as well. Bedside you will find pamphlets translated into multiple languages, iPads are available to connect with remote translators, and many departments work closely with translation services.

“If we have an emergency C-section delivery, we will have someone come in person to translate for the patient,” Bianco says. “There are tons of studies that share how outcomes improve when there is someone in the room who speaks the language of the patient. It allows the mothers to express their fears, concerns, and questions.”

Bianco pictured with Melchor (right), who is now an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSF, Fresno

Training A New Generation

It’s not only about being there for the patients that need the most care. For Bianco, it is also about training a future generation of obstetricians. 

“I am so inspired by the new generations of trainees. There is so much social awareness, and they are so selfless when it comes to the community’s collective wellbeing,” she shares. “I’ve been learning from them because I believe in bi-directional learning.”

The mentees that Bianco works with directly are mostly women and Latinx. Together, they share stories of coming from refugee families and crossing borders, what motivated them to go into medicine, and their desire to go back to their local communities and make a difference. 

Stephanie Melchor is one such recent resident graduate. Hailing from the Central Valley, she has returned to be a generalist OB/GYN at University of California, San Francisco’s Fresno campus. The Assistant Clinical Professor notes that Bianco was one of the few Latinx attending physicians she met during her residency interviews.

“It is one of the reasons why I chose Stanford for my residency training,” Melchor adds. “Not only does she provide excellent, culturally sensitive care to all her patients, but she has also been our leader in establishing a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative in the department. Dr. Bianco has been a transformative figure in my training, and she continues to be a role model for me as a bilingual Latina physician in academic medicine.”

A Mentor at Stanford and Beyond

Growing up in a family where “education is power,” Bianco continues to enrich the lives of students at Stanford and beyond.

Stanford’s Leadership in Health Disparities Program (LHDP) is a six-week program that is offered to Stanford School of Medicine students during the summer quarter preceding the first year of medical school. This summer, Bianco is mentoring a student with the hopes of introducing the power of research so that she has a leg up in her career and “hit the ground running when it comes to residency matching and whatever the student decides down the road, because our field is competitive.” 

Left: Bianco training Indian nurses in low-resource settings to perform essential obstetric procedures; Right: Bianco in Guatemala on a GO MOMS training visit

For those not attending Stanford, the Stanford Clinical Opportunity for Residency Experience (SCORE) Program brings fourth-year medical students from diverse backgrounds to Stanford for a four-week residential clinical training rotation as well as matching them with mentors. In the past few years, Bianco is proud to share that multiple alumni from the SCORE program have matched with the OB/GYN residency program. 

Another training opportunity Bianco champions is the Racial Equity to Advance a Community of Health (REACH) Initiative, where just this summer the Ob/Gyn department hosted two second-year medical students from Meharry Medical College. She shares that “it was wonderful to have those two students but more wonderful for the department to have exposure. It’s a two-way gain for both the students and us.”

“Listening to the new generation, I have a feeling that things are going to be different.

Across borders, Bianco partners with Clinical Professor Kay Daniels, MD, on GO MOMS. It is a program that trains educators and physicians in low-resource environments to implement and sustain simulations to train local providers for obstetrical and gynecological complications. Bianco volunteers her expertise to bring OB/GYN students to places like Guatemala to share training techniques. The team proved that the training works virtually as well, having wrapped a training with a group in Tijuana, Mexico recently.  

“Listening to the new generation, I have a feeling that things are going to be different,” she remarks. “Through mentoring, we can guarantee that we have a strong pipeline and representation of Latinx leaders locally and throughout the country which will hopefully trickle down to patient care.”