By Jane Erikson
Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, the newly appointed interim head of Family and Community Medicine, is widely respected for her more than 20 years of research leading to innovative programs to help people quit smoking.
She’s also one who can claim the title of Wildcat for Life. She holds a bachelor’s degree, MD and master’s in public health degree, all from the University of Arizona. What’s more, her affiliation with the UA started when she was about 2.
Dr. Muramoto is a Tucson native whose daycare often consisted of hanging out in the UA lab where her father worked. The late Hiroshi Muramoto, PhD, was a plant scientist known for his development of a hybrid cotton that eliminated a dust produced by other cotton bolls, and linked to deadly brown lung disease.
As an older child, she says, “I remember going to basketball games in Bear Down Gym, sitting on the bleachers that pulled out from the wall, and running around under the bleachers."
Her scientist father sparked her interest in research. Her interest in medicine grew during her Amphitheater High School years when her late mother, Josephine Muramoto, was frequently hospitalized with diabetes complications. Her experience inspired her to enroll in a College of Medicine internship program, shadowing Winter Griffith, MD, a professor of Family and Community Medicine (FCM).
“He was a leader in the patient education movement, helping people learn more about their illness and their health, and empowering them to take better care of themselves,” she recalls. Dr. Griffith also introduced her to medical students, residents and faculty, and arranged for her to watch surgeries and deliveries.
She enrolled at the UA in 1977 and chose nutritional science as her major. Although she was set on going to med school, she almost got sidetracked. “I worked for a while in a biochem lab, which I really liked. But then I decided I really preferred people contact to bench science. I decided to apply to med school and see what happened.”
She enrolled in the College of Medicine in 1981, knowing from the outset that she wanted to be a family doctor. She had no interest then in academic medicine, and expected to join a small group practice. But that changed during her UA family medicine residency and fellowship, when she realized how much she enjoyed teaching medical students and residents.
In addition, her commitment to caring for underserved and socioeconomically vulnerable patients was strengthened during her residency by her work with a local addiction treatment center.
“I saw that many of the patients were materially wealthy but spiritually impoverished,” she says, “and just the opposite was true of my family practice patients. They weren’t materially well off, but they were enriched by their strong relationships with their families and friends, which meant they were in better shape emotionally and socially.”
In 1988, Dr. Muramoto and fellow resident Dael Waxman, MD – now interim chair of Family Medicine with the Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. – stayed on as fourth-year co-chief residents and faculty development fellows.
In 1990, Dr. Muramoto joined the faculty of FCM, which had a strong program in global health. Eighteen months later, she left for a year and a half in Lesotho, in southern Africa, first as director of a public health nutrition survey. Next, she was director of the Lesotho Highlands Health Survey, a part of the public health monitoring for a massive dam and water development project – at that time the largest heavy-construction project in the world.
She returned to FCM in 1993, restarted her family medicine practice and began working on a master’s in public health. And she started researching new approaches to tobacco cessation.
Her research has built on the concept of what she calls “concerned others” – family members, friends and others who want to help someone quit smoking. It’s a concept she adapted from basic CPR training: Give a non-medical person the information and skills to help a person in distress.
In 2004, she won her first major grant from the National Cancer Institute, for a study comparing traditional classroom versus online methods of training concerned others to help smokers quit. She expected professionals to sign up, but most of the participants were people who worried about family members and friends who smoked.
“That’s what took our research in a really different direction,” she said, “and we’ve been following that direction for more than a decade.”
Her most recent study has involved training complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers - chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists – to encourage clients to quit smoking. Many CAM providers treat patients for musculoskeletal pain; yet many of their patients are unaware of how smoking impairs healing and can make pain worse; at the same time, they use smoking as a way to cope with their pain.
C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, a senior scientist with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading health care philanthropy, describes Dr. Muramoto as “an especially effective leader who is making a critical inroad” in the effort to reduce the number of Americans who smoke.
Dr. Muramoto became interim head of FCM on Oct. 1, following Tammie Bassford, MD, who in 2002 became the College of Medicine’s first woman department head. Dr. Bassford, who remains on the FCM faculty, recognized Dr. Muramoto’s leadership potential and made her senior vice head of FCM in 2013.
“This next year, or however long I serve as interim, is going to be a very interesting year,” she said. “I’ve got really big boots to fill. But I’m looking forward to what we can accomplish.”