Jennifer L. Payne, MD’s Research is Making an Impact Stigma of Mental Health Illness

March 14, 2023 by

Jennifer L. Payne, MD

Jennifer L. Payne, MD

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month we’re excited to spotlight Jennifer L. Payne, MD, professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. Dr. Payne joined UVA Health in 2021 and is making an impact on our strategic goal of expanding our excellence and enabling discoveries for better health. Read on to learn more about Dr. Payne’s unique perspective of what UVA Health can do to better embrace equity.

Why did you become a doctor?  

Payne: I joined the UVA Neuroscience Program right after undergrad thinking I was going to get a PhD in neuroscience; however, I became extremely allergic to rats! Based on some of the medical school classes that were part of my program, I decided that medical school was going to be a better, and healthier, fit for me. I never lost my love of research, and so I became a clinical researcher instead of a basic scientist, giving me a chance to help the individuals that I treat, and to affect the whole population of patients and the standard of care through research.

What challenges did you face, if any, being a women physician?

Payne: There have been several challenges from not being taken seriously to inappropriate comments directed at me. The biggest challenge, however, has always been balancing family and work. I had to constantly reassess how to best balance all my roles in order to meet everybody’s needs including my own. At times, work took the front seat and other times my family did. It was important for me to think clearly about priorities and roles on an almost daily basis.

What are you most proud of since joining UVA Health?

Payne: It was incredibly meaningful to me to receive the teaching award from the Psychiatry residents less than a year after joining the UVA faculty! I’m also proud of my research team: Meeta Pangtey, MPH; Lauren Williamson, PhD; and Kayla Pennycuff, BS, who make up the Reproductive Psychiatry Research Program and are Clinical Research Coordinators. They are awesome!

Who were some of your earliest women role models? 

Payne: My earliest role model was Dr. Madeline Harrison in Neurology here at UVA. I worked for her for a year after deciding to go to medical school. She was a neurologist, an excellent mother, and a scientist. She inspired me more than she will ever know!

Is there a particular woman or women you admire today? 

Payne: One woman I really admire is Kathie Wisner, MD, who started the field of reproductive psychiatry. Dr. Wisner is also a clinician, clinical researcher, and a mom and she’s always given me great advice! As a pioneer in researching postpartum depression and the management of psychiatric disorders during pregnancy, Dr. Wisner has made a huge impact on our field.

What more can we be doing as a health system to embrace equity? 

Payne: We need to recognize that equity addresses a whole host of different factors that aren’t limited to gender or race. For example, patients with psychiatric disorders often receive suboptimal medical care because their concerns are dismissed due to the perception that their complaints are secondary to their mental illness. The reality is that most physicians either treat patients with psychiatric illness or need to address psychiatric aspects of other illnesses; and many of our front-line physicians need to address psychiatric illness directly because there are not enough mental health providers. As a health system that wants to embrace equity we need to have more conversations about the overlap of psychiatric care and medical care and make sure that all UVA Health providers are adequately trained to address mental health.

How does your research impact our strategic goal of “Expanding our Excellence and Enabling Discoveries for Better Health?”

Payne: One of my research studies has identified two epigenetic biomarkers that can predict with about 80 percent accuracy who will develop postpartum depression. These biomarkers have been replicated several times and I’m working with a small start-up company to try to make the biomarker test commercially available. My dream is to change the standard of care and to make the blood test available to all pregnant women during their third trimester. If a woman is identified by the test as being at high risk, their clinician can help them to prevent onset of this potentially devastating psychiatric illness. Postpartum depression is the most common complication of childbirth, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the year after delivery. Preventing postpartum depression would truly be “expanding our excellence!”

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