Robert A. Hatcher, MD, MPH

Those Who Can, Teach

robert hatcherHis students love him. His textbook, Contraceptive Technology, is used around the world. His website answers every imaginable question about birth control. In more than four decades as a clinician, researcher and professor, Robert A. Hatcher, MD, MPH, has helped thousands of medical students and patients understand contraception.

Dr. Hatcher sees teaching as a primary responsibility for every physician: “A lot of doctors think of teaching as an invasion of their right to be doing important things,” he says. “I’ve never thought of it that way.” His exceptional dedication to teaching led PRCH to award Dr. Hatcher with this year’s Kenneth J. Ryan, MD, Physician Leadership Award.

For Dr. Hatcher, teaching and learning are integral. Reflecting on his career, he says, “You think back and every patient teaches you a lesson.” From women in Haiti desperate for long-term contraception to a young mother in Atlanta struggling to house her children, patients have influenced many of Dr. Hatcher’s career decisions, as well as his personal beliefs about the value of reproductive choice.

Learning from Patients

Just before Dr. Hatcher left for a trip to Haiti—where he planned to begin a career as a medical missionary—one of his colleagues taught him how to insert IUDs and gave him a supply to take with him. “These women really wanted them. They all had more children than they could handle and didn’t want any more,” he recalls. “I came back and said that I was going into family planning.” In 1968 he became a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine, where he has worked ever since.

Another patient changed Dr. Hatcher’s attitude toward abortion, a pivotal moment in his career. “I entered family planning not really feeling very good about abortion,” he says. But a mother struggling to raise five children in a rat-infested apartment taught him an important lesson. “She had been trying to get out of that apartment for a long, long time. She finally found a place that would take her, but she couldn’t have six children. I was there the morning she came in and we did a pregnancy test, and she was pregnant with her IUD in.” Dr. Hatcher approached a colleague at the hospital and said, “You and I and another person, we’re each going to give a hundred dollars and we’re going to get this woman an abortion.”

Promoting Sexual Health

Dr. Hatcher’s efforts to educate people about contraception and sexual health have gone far beyond treating individual patients. In 1988, he developed a course on sexual etiquette, which was distributed to 200 colleges nationwide. An article about the program in the Atlanta Journal Constitution summed up Dr. Hatcher’s message to young adults: “Never hurt anyone; men and women should take responsibility for their sexual actions together; and when it comes to sex, never assume anything.” His subsequent books on sexual etiquette and managing contraception bring his years of research and knowledge to men and women navigating their own sexual relationships.

Although Dr. Hatcher no longer treats patients, he continues to teach about contraception and sexuality through his website, managingcontraception.com. Each week, scores of women write to him with questions like, “What happens if I miss my pill?” or “Am I protected during the week when I take my placebo pills?” The stacks of printed emails in his office bear witness to women’s need for this kind of information. The website also serves as a resource for doctors and healthcare providers who have questions about prescribing contraception.

His passion for teaching others about contraception led Dr. Hatcher to write several textbooks on the subject, beginning with a comprehensive reference called Contraceptive Technology. Now the most widely consulted book on the subject, Contraceptive Technology began as a 30-page handout on birth control that Dr. Hatcher distributed to medical students. His research on contraception has inspired other projects, including Managing Contraception (a pocket guide distributed free of charge to every medical student in the United States), and a series of conferences each year on contraceptive technologies. Another of his books, The Essentials of Contraceptive Technology, has been distributed by the United Nations to healthcare professionals around the world.

Inspiring Future Generations

Dr. Hatcher has trained thousands of doctors, medical students and nurses to provide contraception and family planning services. Every Tuesday, members of Emory’s department of gynecology and obstetrics gather for a lunchtime family planning lecture organized by Dr. Hatcher. He also gives an annual lecture on the menstrual cycle—which includes plenty of information about contraception—to all medical students at Emory. The Emory University Summer Program, which he ran for more than 30 years, trained more than 600 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world in family planning. Some of the biggest names in family planning got their start in that program.

As one of Dr. Hatcher’s colleagues—and a former student—PRCH member Carrie Cwiak, MD, MPH, knows firsthand how effective his teaching can be: “When I first met Dr. Hatcher, I thought he would be this great, imposing figure. Instead, he was the nicest man,” she says. “Now, when I introduce Dr. Hatcher to medical students, they can’t stop talking about him. They think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

“Dr. Hatcher has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to other people, and he literally gives it away for free on his website,” says Dr. Cwiak. “He wants to use his experience to help others. He’ll say, ‘I’ve done this before—let me pass this along to you.’ By training with Dr. Hatcher, I didn’t just learn about birth control, or get a chance to work with great people—he teaches the importance of thanking people every day. He forces you to think about things in a different way.”