Virginia Moyer’s work on medical task force makes her one of mag’s ‘People Who Mattered’
BY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News staff
Rice University alumna Virginia Moyer ’74 was named one of Time Magazine’s “People Who Mattered” in this week’s “Person of the Year” edition.
What matters just about as much to Moyer is getting back on her feet.
“I’m lying here with my knee elevated,” she said by phone this week. “And the reason I had knee surgery actually goes back to my Rice football career.”
Moyer pointed to a freshman-year game of powder puff as the source of her current woe. “I got clipped and subsequently had eight surgeries on my right knee, the most recent of which was Tuesday.”
So the news of Time’s honor raised the spirits of the high-profile professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. The magazine cited her work as chairwoman of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, first convened by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1984 and responsible for providing rigorous, independent assessments of a range of clinical preventive services. The panel is considered to be the “gold standard” for such recommendations and has far-reaching impact on decisions by Medicare, health insurers, clinicians and medical schools.
Time noted that in October the task force set off shock waves when it recommended healthy men do not need routine screenings for prostate cancer. The findings followed five clinical trials that showed the tests, which measure levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood, not only do not save lives overall, but also put patients at risk of harm in the form of needless surgery, impotence and incontinence.
“The fact is we considered it extremely carefully,” Moyer said. “We went over the data with an absolute fine-tooth comb, and our conclusion was that the downsides of screening outweigh any potential benefits. I say that carefully because it is not clear that there is any benefit.”
She said better tests would be most welcome. “If we could find a new biomarker for aggressive prostate cancer, that would be terrific,” Moyer said. She noted that biopsies commonly show that what look like cancer cells under a microscope “do not behave like cancer and perhaps should not be called cancer.”
Moyer said two-thirds of men age 65-85 have cancerous cells in their prostates, “and the vast majority of them will never be affected by it in their lifetimes. So finding it out is not going to benefit them.”
She noted credit for the recommendation should not be hers alone but belongs to the 16-member panel of health professionals who look at many issues. “We have between 70 and 90 topics in our active list, some of which have not been revised in a while, and we have several new topics under way,” Moyer said. “Another that recently came out was a draft recommendation to counsel young people about exposure to ultraviolet light, to avoid skin cancer. Another had to do with falls and the elderly.
“For all of us, our passion is getting the science right,” Moyer said. “We are not advocates, and that is what most significantly distinguishes the Preventive Services Task Force from other groups that are interested in prevention. The most important thing is to get it right and not promote preventative activities that might not be beneficial. One of the reasons is that they take time away from things we know are beneficial.”
Moyer earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Rice. “There’s no question that my Rice education, which was an academically rigorous education, set me up for success in medical school,” she said. She attended Baylor College of Medicine, “which was a common path – still is – among students at Rice. From the time I was relatively young, I had it in my head that I was going to go to medical school. I came to Rice knowing that it would give me good preparation, and it did.”
A Rice friend, Gale Morrow ’73, recalled being “in awe” of Moyer.
“I was impressed by her intelligence, but she was one of the friendliest and most positive people I have ever met,” said Morrow, deputy regional director of the Texas Department of State Health Services Region 8. “Everything she did, she did with a smile.”
One of Moyer’s favorite teachers, Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology and co-director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, remembered her fondly, too.
“She was just extraordinary, a wonderful student,” Klineberg said. “She was not only brilliant, but also showed this tremendous commitment even then to serving the public good.”
“There were a number of standouts,” Moyer said, “and I don’t want to leave anybody out, but Steve Klineberg was one of the professors who taught people to think critically about things.
“And I know he remembers me,” she said. “My son graduated from Rice. His name is not Moyer – it’s John Tucker – and he was in one of Steve’s classes. Steve looked at him and said, ‘I know who your mother is!’ John looks like me and is apparently equally argumentative.”
Klineberg didn’t mind. “As a young person, she was already showing signs of the kind of life she was going to lead,” he said of Moyer. “I have spoken about her for years as one of my all-time favorite students.”