Director of Health Programs
Department of Health and Human Services
Educating millions of underserved women about how to detect and prevent life-threatening diseases.
A glance at the latest national statistics on women’s health reveals the following: Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States and breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death; African American women have the highest mortality rates from both diseases; and diabetes is a leading cause of death for African American, Native American, and Hispanic women.
The good news is that simply being aware of the behaviors and risk factors that lead to these health problems is half the battle when it comes to preventing them. Simply persuading women to take the small, first steps to wellness can save their lives.
But in a fast-paced world in which we are being constantly bombarded with information and advertisements, how can you break through the fray and reach women with the messages that matter most? That’s the question Marsha Henderson has been answering her entire 26-year government career.
Henderson, currently the Director of Health Programs for the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health, has made unprecedented strides in reaching the nation’s underserved women – particularly women of color – with practical, life-saving information about their health.
In 1998, responding to concerns raised by women’s organizations, Henderson created the national “Take Time To Care” program, which disseminates information on women’s health issues. Since then, the program has grown from a small grassroots effort into a massive national health campaign that reaches millions of women. The program’s key strength has been making the most of networks with diverse women’s health groups. In 1996, the first campaign, "Use Medicines Wisely," reached 26 million people thanks to partnerships Henderson helped forge with 80 pharmaceutical and health organizations, including the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS).
In 2000, to address disparities in breast cancer mortality among African American and Hispanic women, Henderson created a new outreach program called “Pink Ribbon Sunday: Mammography Saves Lives.” Henderson devised unique ways to tap into faith-based organizations in order to deliver important mammography information. For example, in October 2000, 153 churches in Houston reached 110,000 worshipers on one Sunday alone.
In 2002, a new campaign led by Henderson, "Take Time To Care About Diabetes," supported by the American Diabetes Association, used creative means to target Hispanic and African-American women - both populations at high risk for diabetes – with messages about diabetes detection and prevention. Henderson oversaw focus groups to ensure that educational materials would be sensitive to the needs of these groups. Outreach efforts ranged from the dissemination of English/Spanish recipe cards to mentions in the “Hints from Heloise” column to the donation of almost $100,000 in free airtime from networks like Telemundo and Univision. Thanks to these efforts, an unprecedented number of people were reached. In fact, during one month in the spring of 2002, about 5,000 people showed up at community drug stores around the country to complete diabetes screenings.
Henderson’s colleagues say that her success stems from creativity, an ability to bring partner organizations together, and an innate business sense. Patricia Carlile, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, worked with Henderson while she served on a temporary assignment at HUD. She says, “I’ve spent 20 years in the private sector… and I’ve [worked with] a lot of people at very senior levels. I’d put [Marsha] up against any of the top people I’ve met in private industry.”
But for Henderson, what matters most is not the expertise that she brings to the table. It’s the fact that her efforts are getting women information they can use to lead longer, healthier, lives.