Traveling the World in the Name of Health

By Sue DePasquale

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“Throughout my career, I’ve been a voice for putting patients first.” —Freda C. Lewis-Hall ’76

photo: John Halpern

As chief medical officer for Pfizer, the world’s largest research-based biopharmaceutical company, Freda C. Lewis-Hall ’76 spends plenty of time in board rooms and high-level meetings, deliberating on the safe, effective, and appropriate use of Pfizer medicines and vaccines around the globe.

But it’s her work that takes her out in the field, interacting with patients young and old, that Pfizer’s top physician finds most fulfilling. She describes a “life-changing” 10-day trip through Africa last year that began in Ethiopia. “One of my favorite moments was standing under trees in Ethiopia, measuring children to determine the dose of medicine they’d get as we provided treatment to prevent blinding trachoma”—the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.

Lewis-Hall’s next stop was Uganda, where Pfizer supports a center for HIV research and prevention. Last was a rural area in Rwanda, where a newly opened outpatient health center (made possible through another Pfizer partnership) has put medical care within reach of entire villages that previously had nowhere to turn for basic health care.

“Throughout my career, I’ve basically been a voice for putting patients first. One of my priorities is to demonstrate that Pfizer, as a leader in the industry, is really serious about [that]…. Health plans, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academic centers that are focused on patient outcomes around the world are terrific partners for us in the work that we do,” says Lewis-Hall, who was appointed by President Obama in 2010 to the 21-member board of governors for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). She also serves on the board of the Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Drug Discovery, Development, and Translation.

In addition to partnering to develop medical infrastructure in underserved regions of the world (including advocating for an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to tackling tropical diseases like malaria and tuberculosis), Pfizer has many projects brewing in research and development. “Companies like Pfizer are invested in working to introduce a new generation of highly effective, focused medicines and vaccines. That work is exciting,” she says.
Before joining Pfizer in 2009, Lewis-Hall held senior leadership positions with Vertex, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pharmacia, and Lilly.

Lewis-Hall earned her medical degree from Howard University and began her career as a practicing psychiatrist. She says that she had “zero idea” when she was a pre-med student at Johns Hopkins that she’d one day land at the top of the pharmaceutical industry. “When I was 6 years old, I came up with the notion of becoming a physician. That was a pretty bold notion at the time for an African-American girl growing up in Annapolis,” she recalls.

Key to her achieving that dream and her subsequent professional accomplishments, she says, were the mentors along the way who served as both “advocates and supporters,” while also providing “honest, straightforward feedback”—what Lewis-Hall describes as an “incredible combination.”

“Mentoring cannot start early enough,” she says, particularly among those who face challenges due to gender, race, or ethnicity. “Biases are alive and well today. Many people need the opportunity to be pulled past those things and to be encouraged to pull themselves beyond them,” she says.

Lewis-Hall herself has mentored more than 100 women over the course of her career, according to the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, which named her its Woman of the Year for 2011, and also praised her as a “vocal advocate for overcoming cultural barriers to care and eliminating health care disparities.” Such work also has earned her accolades from Black Enterprise magazine, which named her among the nation’s 75 Most Powerful Women, and Black Health magazine, which honored her as being among the 25 Most Influential African-Americans in Health Care.

“I think of [mentoring] as a marathon,” says Lewis-Hall, the mother of three grown children. “There are so many places that things can go wrong. We need people along the way to give you water, root you on.” The challenge, she says, is “getting enough good people lined up to give good coaching to get you over the hills and through the rain.”

Lewis-Hall lives in New York City with her husband, Randy ’75, whom she met at Hopkins, where he majored in political science. Lewis-Hall says that her clinical experience early in her career is important to her current day-to-day work at Pfizer.

“I went into psychiatry at an exciting time, when the biology of the brain was really headed to the forefront,” she says. Having been “a practicing physician, I get it. I really understand what differences I would like to make for patients. I have an appreciation for the quality of the tools we already have, as well as the gaps—which makes me enthusiastic about providing new tools, treatments, and diagnostics to physicians.”