The question that keeps Dr. Esa Davis up at night is: How do we keep women healthy?
“It’s not a secret that women tend to have an effect not just on our own health but also our children and often, our partner or spouse,” says the associate professor of medicine and clinical and translational science. “We cannot afford for women to get sick.”
Davis, a primary care physician, clinical investigator and medical educator, has focused on this question for more than 20 years. Her research has helped broaden our understanding of a pivotal turning point in women’s health: pregnancy and the first few months thereafter.
And recently, this body of work also earned her recognition on a national level.
In January, Davis was appointed to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a prestigious independent panel of experts in preventative medicine. The Task Force is charged with rigorously reviewing medical literature and formulating the evidence-based recommendations that physicians turn to regarding screenings, counseling services and other approaches to protecting Americans’ health. The Task Force also reports to Congress on an annual basis, identifying critical gaps in peer-reviewed medical research and recommending priorities for areas of future study.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve—and to represent the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC in this space,” she says.
As a scientist, Davis—whose studies have been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—traces the start of her journey to a lecture back in med school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. On a slide comparing obesity rates by gender and race, the statistics on Black women floored her.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Why is it so much higher than any other group?’” she recalls. More than half of African American women—56.9%—are overweight or obese, compared to 43.7% of Hispanic women; 39.8% of white women and 17.2% of Asian women in the United States.
Deep reading led to conducting patient surveys, then to her first clinical trials, and later, to what are known as comparative effectiveness trials—where patient outcomes of treatments and prevention approaches are compared, apples to apples, in everyday healthcare settings.
Davis’s data point to the perinatal period as “one of the initial starting points for a long-term struggle with obesity,” she says. In less than a year, the body of a healthy woman in her 20s or 30s can quickly weather before her time. Blood sugar, blood pressure and blood lipid levels rise, dramatic metabolic changes setting her on a path to cardiovascular disease. Health risks increase for her baby, as well.
And for Black women, Davis has found, the interplay between additional stressors that come with intersectionality—in gender, race and socioeconomic status—can further compound these vulnerabilities.
Davis has shown that shorter intervals between pregnancies are a distinct driver of obesity and its downstream health effects. If a woman remains overweight or obese after her first pregnancy and into her second, “now, she has two issues,” she says. “Not just getting back to pre-pregnancy weight, but then the practical piece: ‘I’ve got two small children. How am I going to exercise?’”
Davis maintains a busy primary care practice at UPMC Montefiore Hospital and also coordinates a women’s health contraception clinic at Children’s Primary Care Center in Turtle Creek, an underserved area. Additionally, she codirects the UPMC Tobacco Treatment Service, a diverse, multidisciplinary team that serves patients in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings. In this role, Davis also conducts comparative-effectiveness research on smoking-cessation treatments.
A devoted champion of equity in health care and diversity and inclusion in medical education, Davis teaches and mentors budding physicians and physician-scientists across all levels of their studies and training. She is associate director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s KL2 Scholars’ Program and director of the Career Education and Enhancement for Health Career Research Diversity Program.
Davis has served on several national committees, including the National Academy of Medicine and National Institute of Health Study Sections.
Her four-year term on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force began in January.