Dr. Judy Black Champions End-of-Life Care for All
From her humble beginnings in rural Punxsutawney, education was always a priority for Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) Medical Advisor Judy Black, MD, MHA. Her passion for learning and for sharing her knowledge has led Dr. Black on a path from a one-room schoolhouse to a long and distinguished career in internal medicine and geriatrics—and to becoming a leading expert on end-of-life care. After retiring from clinical practice in 2019, Dr. Black remains committed to sharing her knowledge with a new generation of professionals, with the goal of ensuring quality end-of-life care for all.
The oldest of four children growing up in a rural town, Dr. Black had aspirations of becoming a pharmacist. However, for young women in that era, the career options presented to them were only those deemed "female-centric" in nature. She recalled, "My guidance counselor in high school really encouraged secretarial, nursing, and teaching careers. I looked at nursing school because I didn't want to be a teacher or a secretary."
This seemingly misguided advice proved salient, as her love of learning was cultivated during her education at Presbyterian University School of Nursing. While pursuing her RN diploma, Dr. Black reflects, "I had some experiences that made me think I really wanted to be a physician. I went ahead and worked in the operating room as a scrub nurse while I went to college for pre-med." She was the first in her family to earn a college degree and credits her parents with providing the encouragement and support to believe that she could be whatever she wanted to be—despite what the cultural norms at the time had to say. She earned her MD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a master's degree in Health Services Administration from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Dr. Black credits many mentors throughout her education, in particular the late oncologist Dr. William Cooper, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Shadyside Hospital, who was instrumental in guiding her professionally. In addition, she is grateful for how supportive her husband, Mickey, has been throughout her career endeavors.
Much of the work that Dr. Black has done during her medical career—and her work with JHF—has centered on educating both early career and experienced healthcare professionals. She was extensively involved with resident education while working at the Western Pennsylvania Hospital and UPMC St. Margaret Memorial Hospital. She became acquainted with JHF's aging work during her work as medical director of Senior Markets at Highmark and joined as medical advisor in 2016.
Through the Death and Dying Fellowship offered by JHF, Dr. Black continues to have an opportunity to mentor nurses, physicians, social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and other young healthcare professionals on how to have end-of-life conversations. "It's important that we have students exposed to the positive aspects of aging early in their careers, and that is something JHF has really taken a lead on, such as with the Revisiting the Teaching Nursing Home initiative. Learning and having an opportunity to interact with both elderly and frail can be very rewarding," she noted.
She also shares from both her professional and personal experiences with older adults seeking education on planning for the end of life as faculty for the "Closure" course offered by JHF through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Black was instrumental in getting POLST (Pennsylvania Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) established in Pennsylvania. POLST was developed in Oregon in the 1990s as a process for creating a portable medical order to communicate wishes regarding health care for the seriously ill or frail. She was introduced to the POLST initiative in the early 2000s and became committed to bringing it to Pennsylvania. As the lead faculty for the POLST curriculum administered by JHF, Dr. Black guides providers on best practices for having POLST conversations. She also participates with JHF as a member of the Coalition for Quality at the End of Life, a coalition of organizations concerned about the quality of care that is available to seriously ill and dying people and their families in Pennsylvania.
In addition to her continued work with JHF, Dr. Black remains engaged professionally through her work with the Pennsylvania Geriatrics Society Western Division as their secretary/treasurer since the organization's inception in 1988 and has been part of the nationally recognized annual educational course in geriatrics. She also continues to represent Pennsylvania for the National POLST organization. Dr. Black is driven to ensure that POLST discussions are quality conversations between patients and providers and that the POLST form is respected across care settings and patients' end-of-life care wishes are met.
Dr. Black has witnessed much progress in how our society addresses aging and end-of-life issues, but challenges remain, she notes, particularly regarding how we finance care for older adults. "What I'd like to see," she explains, "is a more integrated financial system between Medicare and Medicaid that would allow for more support of seniors in the setting of which they want to live both as they age and as they're facing end-of-life care."
Given her continued commitment to educating today's and tomorrow's geriatrics and end-of-life professionals, Dr. Black's retirement is not the leisurely lifestyle many envision for themselves. She does, however, enjoy the flexibility that retirement has afforded her. She saves plenty of time for active pursuits, such as tennis, pickleball, biking, and water-skiing, as well as for enjoying time with her seven—soon to be nine—grandchildren and her 95-year-old father. JHF is deeply grateful that Dr. Black continues to make time to provide expert guidance on our aging and end-of-life programming.