Most kids have a general idea of what it is their parents do for a living. Few, however, understand — or care about — the specifics, including how their parents’ work impacts the lives of others.
In this regard, Joanna Kramer was an anomaly. What’s more, she was the rare child who showed a great deal of empathy for fellow kids who were battling chronic illnesses.
Those two realities go a long way toward explaining Kramer’s decision to follow in her mother’s occupational footsteps.
“As the daughter of an internal medicine physician who was absolutely adored by her patients, I always felt there could be no more satisfying career than helping maintain and restore the health of individuals and communities,” Kramer says. “Also, growing up, I was in awe of the incredible spirits of children who conquered health challenges, whether it was my childhood friend with Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) or my neighbor with autism.
“I couldn’t imagine a more gratifying career than playing a small part in helping these amazing children overcome their health challenges and grow into healthy, thriving young adults.”
Kramer has done precisely that in a multi-pronged career as a pediatrician, medical professor, and researcher.
After earning her graduate degree in public health from UNLV and a doctorate in osteopathic medicine from Touro University Nevada, Kramer decamped for Ohio where she completed a pediatric residency and chief residency at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Today, when not tending to pediatric patients in the division of primary, complex care and adolescent medicine at Phoenix Children’s — one of the nation’s fastest-growing pediatric health care systems — Kramer serves as a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix and a clinical instructor at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine-Phoenix.
Kramer developed an osteopathic manipulation medical rotation at Phoenix Children’s. She is heavily involved with mentoring and teaching pediatric residents in the general pediatrics rotation, as well as resident continuity clinics.
Then, during her “down time,” Kramer indulges her passion for public health and medical research as an investigator on national studies. She recently completed a role as sub-investigator on a National Institutes of Health-sponsored study that aims to reduce COVID–19 transmission among Hispanic and low-income preschoolers. She now serves as site principal investigator for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about influenza and COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness.
Obviously, juggling so many career hats — particularly in a field as complex as medicine — isn’t easy. But Kramer will be the first to tell you she derives tremendous satisfaction through her work. And those impacted by her work will tell you it’s extremely important.
That’s why in her first year at Phoenix Children’s, Kramer was awarded the Melvin L. Cohen Outpatient Faculty Teacher of the Year as voted on by residents. And why her team of residents won the hospital’s Quality Day award for a 2022 quality-improvement project that focused on screening for discrimination in the General Pediatrics Clinic. The team won the same award in 2023 for drowning prevention project.
How did you find your way to UNLV after completing your undergraduate studies in Pennsylvania?
I was drawn to UNLV after learning about a graduate assistantship under [now dean of the School of Public Health] Shawn Gerstenberger in his Environmental and Occupational Health Laboratory. This turned out to be an incredible opportunity that exposed me to experiences I never would have imagined.
I spent my time at UNLV capturing fish and quagga mussels for mercury analysis in Lake Mead; analyzing canned tuna for mercury content; performing lead analyses on candy and artificial turf; and conducting home lead investigations with the Southern Nevada Health District.
The time I spent in Dr. Gerstenberger’s lab taught me indispensable critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I graduated from UNLV and entered medical school with the confidence to take on unexpected opportunities, think outside the box, and search for answers that are not always readily apparent.
UNLV is one of the nation’s most diverse campuses, and it’s situated in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. In what ways have you benefited from those realities?
My public health degree helped me develop a deep understanding of the ways in which social determinants can impact societal and individual health. Digging into these issues in Las Vegas allowed me to investigate several environmental factors, including how heavy metals can disproportionately impact communities.
While there are no easy fixes to these disparities, it is imperative that physicians appreciate these and take them into account within the populations that we serve.
In my current pediatric practice, we serve a diverse patient population. I strive to continually learn about the ways in which my patients’ diverse backgrounds can impact their health and take the extra steps to bring equity to my practice.
One example of this is a quality improvement project in which my residents and I have implemented screening for discrimination at well-child visits and taking steps to educate pediatricians about ways we can help patients experiencing discrimination. This project recently received a Health Equity Grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Why did you decide to dive into the academic side of medicine, and how has the experience enriched you personally?
I love academic medicine because it allows me to practice clinical medicine with the patients and families that I adore while simultaneously teaching and mentoring learners, and engaging in research and quality improvement endeavors.
Teaching residents and medical students requires me to stay on top of the latest medical research, and I often learn just as much from them as they learn from me! Helping develop the next generation of physicians is incredibly satisfying and in some ways mirrors my clinical work as a pediatrician, helping children to grow, conquer challenges and reach milestones.
UNLV students and alumni are encouraged to embrace their “Rebel spirit” — to be daring, take chances and resist convention. Describe a moment when your “Rebel spirit” was on full display.
To me, the Rebel spirit is about embracing one’s uniqueness and taking risks to create positive change.
As an osteopathic pediatrician, I take pride in the unique skill set of osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) that separates osteopathic physicians (or DOs) from MDs. In my career, I developed an OMM clinic within my general pediatric practice and created pathways for both osteopathic and allopathic residents to learn about osteopathy.
Additionally, I developed a pediatric osteopathic interest group, an OMM rotation, have spoken locally and nationally on pediatric osteopathic medicine, and have championed multiple osteopathic research projects.
In a community that values traditional allopathic medicine, I am seen as a bit of a Rebel, but my patients who have the opportunity to benefit from OMM treatment and the residents who get to learn it alongside me are always incredibly grateful!