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On the Road with Atul Nakhasi: AMA-MSS Chair and the Person Behind the Next Medical Student Revolution

Atul Nakhasi with Vice President-elect Joe Biden in 2009.
Atul Nakhasi with Vice President-elect Joe Biden in 2009.

Atul Nakhasi with Vice President-elect Joe Biden in 2009.

Atul Nakhasi has been called the most sought-after young man in Iowa—2007 Person of the Year, Campus Kingmaker, you name it—for his game-changing political organizing as president of University of Iowa Democrats during the 2008 presidential election. Atul now oversees 50,000 U.S. medical students as chair of the American Medical Association Medical Student Section (AMA-MSS). I vividly remember the email Atul sent to me during his campaign for chair almost a year ago. He casually wrote, “I’m tossing in my hat for Chair,” and asked if we could chat sometime. Within five minutes of the call, I knew he was no ordinary medical student—he was a visionary out to change U.S. health care. Now, just a month into his official term as chair, I interviewed him via Google Hangout. He talks about losing his first election, his key to success, fist bumping with Vice President Biden, how he is revolutionizing the AMA-MSS—and, at the end of the day, he admits that a good nap is the best thing that could happen to a third-year medical student.

Our interview begins on Google Hangout. Atul is sitting on his bed with his laptop in his Baltimore apartment. He jokes with me and then slips back into his calm, collected demeanor.

MEENA: You built up quite a reputation for yourself in Iowa while in college. Tell us about your experience.

ATUL: Yeah, it’s an interesting story actually. During that first year, I got involved in student government. I actually lost my first election. That process opened up a lot of doors for me to think about other ways to get involved. At the end of my second year, literally, I took the helm of our College Democrats in mid-April of 2007, and two weeks later we get a call from the Obama campaign to hold a rally for 10,000 people. That was the most surreal nine months of my entire life. And an opportunity that I would have never foreseen—right place, right time, right opportunity, right state—it was just an amazing crossroads of opportunity that changed my life views forever and my life trajectory. Seeing, honestly, the ability to bring people together towards a movement, a cascade, that just had a rippling effect; not only on those in Iowa, but for the whole entire country.

MEENA: I think everyone is immediately impressed by the amount of political game-changing that you accomplished in college. To be able to do that—well, they don’t teach you how to do that in school—so how did you go about doing something this revolutionary without having the real life experience behind you?

ATUL: Being relentless. Relentless.

MEENA: (laughs) That’s the key to success? 

ATUL: That’s the key to all life success! (laughs) My research professor here at Johns Hopkins actually told me once, “I don’t care what your MCAT score is, I don’t care what your GPA is, I don’t care how good of a writer you are in terms of research or publications, I just need you to be persistent.” That is the key to life: persistence.

MEENA: What was it like to meet President Obama and Vice President Biden? I mean, did they give you a fist bump?

ATUL: Biden did (laughs). He put the hand around the shoulder. He brought me in…

MEENA: (laughs) So, you got to watch President Obama campaign, and you got to watch Vice President Biden campaign, and then you had your own turn at a campaign for chair of the AMA-MSS. And you won, congratulations! So tell us about that process of campaigning and why you decided to campaign.

ATUL: Thanks! Yeah, the campaign was exciting. It was the five most exciting months of, maybe of all of med school.

MEENA: (laughs)

ATUL: I don’t know if my OB attending would say the same thing at the time I was campaigning. I did manage to deliver a baby in that time, though. (laughs)

MEENA: (laughs)

ATUL: So delivering babies in the day and campaigning in the evenings… (laughs) I loved it! We talked to over 82 schools, over 100 phone conversations; it was just an unbelievable amount of energy and investment. I think that’s absolutely critical. There’s no other way to run a campaign. Not only would we be able to get to know our students, we’d share what we believe and we’d be able to build that connection.

MEENA: Why should someone get involved in the MSS?

ATUL: Meena, maybe you can give this pitch?

MEENA: (laughs) Maybe so! I think I’ve done it enough times to my own colleagues. Doesn’t always pull through.

ATUL: What’s your thirty-second elevator pitch?

MEENA: Well, there’s a really good party every night. (laughs)

ATUL: (laughs) Your pitch is going to be better than mine and I’m the chair.

MEENA: (laughs) Alright, give us the real pitch. The official pitch.

ATUL: The real pitch is that no matter what you want to do as medical student, the MSS can help you do it. At the end of the day, the value we can provide to you whether you want to be an outstanding physician, whether you want mentorship opportunities, whether you want professional development, whether you want community service, whether you want to lead the way on the reform of medical education, and ultimately whether you want advocate for your career and your profession—that can only happen through us—specifically with advocacy. We are at such a critical time in our country where advocacy is not an option; it’s a duty. That’s our number one duty, and [our] obligation is to advocate at the highest levels. If you want your voice to be heard, if you want to be relevant to your profession, to your lifestyle, to your career, to your patients, it’s a no brainer: the MSS is for you.

MEENA: Wow. Too bad I’m already in; otherwise, I would have signed up. (laughs) It was a good pitch. Why did you want to be chair? What drew you to that position?

ATUL: I ran for one reason, and that was to bring all of the medical students together again in this country, and to make us relevant to the U.S. health care system. My number one goal is to make us relevant again. In Iowa, I saw that we were thought to be irrelevant. And we proved otherwise. I see the same thing happening right now in medicine. There’s such a critical crossroads in the U.S. health care system. We’re at one of the greatest crossroads this country has ever seen since Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid under FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson. Seeing us not engaged in that [health care] was not discouraging but instead inspiring to me to think about what was possible. I think we deserve a seat at the table. We’re gonna inherit the next health care system and it’s our duty to provide a system that provides equitable care for all our citizens.

MEENA: There’s a huge amount of excitement within the MSS that we’re actually going to have a voice now, we’re going to be at the table deciding how health care goes down. That’s exciting to our members. It’s also a really lofty goal at the same time. Can you talk about how—

ATUL: It’s crazy!

MEENA: Crazy awesome! Crazy is good, you know. Only the craziest people make history. Are you allowed to talk about the Rapid Response Network? I know it’s still being formed so some of it might be—

ATUL: Yeah, I can! The Rapid Response Network is something that’s never happened before, ever. That’s exciting. It’s planned to be a coalition of all the major national medical student presidents and leaders of medical and premedical organizations in the United States. We’re actively working with AMA-MSS, AMSA, AAMC-OSR, ANAMS, LMSA, Doctors for America and SNMA to lay the foundation for an unprecedented collective effort on behalf of all medical students. There was not a single national student leader that was not present on that [first] call. That’s how committed we all are to this. We discussed how we can represent over 100,000 medical students amongst our organizations to make us relevant again. Ultimately, it is an infrastructure to build all of our external organizations to be synergistic in our efforts. Because the issues we’re facing are all one in the same. We all believe that greater residency funding is needed. We all believe that immense debt on medical students prohibits students [from] pursuing the career choices they want to. We all believe that our patients should have the ability to access physicians in an affordable way. There are a lot of core tenants that are common amongst all of us; but we’re never talking. And for the first time, we’re talking. This is where it begins.

MEENA: It’s really inspiring to see. We’ve previously talked about wanting to tackle the issue of GME funding through this Rapid Response Network. Put us hypothetically in that situation where we’ve got the Rapid Response Network. Now how does it activate?

ATUL: I hope it activates through, really, the passion of students. All of these issues start with someone caring a lot about an issue. So GME is one that we’ve already evidenced that there’s a lot of passion about [within our students]. So really how it would work is very straightforward. The moment we have an issue—let’s say it’s GME. Just backtracking here, at the state level we saw governors in New Jersey and Florida increase GME funding. This was historic in nature because all of our efforts have been focused at the federal level. There’s tremendous opportunity at the state level. So how it would work is, the Rapid Response Network comes together and says, “Hey, there’s a tremendous opportunity in California. Let’s get together.” And immediately we have the issue, we come together as a network. A lot of these details—it’s very exciting—they’re in the works and we’re figuring out how exactly we implement all of this. But in general that’s really how it works: we come together, we find an issue we all believe in, and we tap into each of our networks. That’ll occur in a way that’s entirely coordinated. It’s game-changing. With one student, you can change the mind of one person [legislator], but with 100,000 students we can change the mind of an entire state, an entire country.

MEENA: What are the issues and challenges facing medical students today in the world of advocacy? 

ATUL: GME funding, for sure. The Institute of Medicine is coming out with perhaps one of the largest reports ever on GME funding in terms of how to finance it this coming December. That’s going to spark national debate on how we need to go about this issue in the future. Which is why it’s super exciting for students because we’re going to be leading that charge. Not only that, but the number of U.S. medical students who didn’t match from [last year to this] year doubled. That’s a tough reality for you and me. Every year from now onward, Meena, we’re going to have students that are our friends and classmates who aren’t gonna match. And that’s just going to keep on increasing. It’s a real issue. I think medical student debt is huge. The average medical student debt right now for a graduating student is $170,000. And interest rates are sky high. So I think those are the two big key issues.

MEENA: Absolutely. I think what’s so compelling about all of this is that for the first time we can advocate for the issues we care about. Because at no point is anyone going to advocate for medical student debt, you know? That needs to come from medical students.

ATUL: Meena, you hit it on the head. Medical student mistreatment, medical student debt, greater flexibility and funding for GME. Like, those are our issues! Those are med student issues. If we don’t take them up, who will? The insurance companies and hospital CEO’s and administrators and politicians, they’d be glad to make decisions on our behalf—

MEENA: (laughs) That’s right! What do you do outside of this? What do you do for fun?

ATUL: What’s fun? (laughs)

MEENA: (laughs) That’s every medical student’s question!

ATUL: It’s funny because the definition of fun changes as you evolve through med school. Like in college, it’s Friday night party. And then first-year med school, it’s going out to a movie, dinner, and drinks with friends. And then second-year med school, it’s chilling on the couch and watching a TV show. And then third-year med school, it’s like “Oh, I slept in ’til 8 a.m.”

MEENA: (laughs) Just a good nap makes for a great night.

ATUL: A good nap is the best thing that could happen to a third-year student. (laughs)

MEENA: (laughs)

ATUL: But personally in my free time, honestly, I love to read. I love to know what’s going on in the world. Like a perfect evening for me is—yeah, I do love the dinner and drinks with friends. Especially enjoying the beautiful sunset in the Baltimore Harbor with a mango mojito in my hand is an awesome Friday evening for me. Also, catching March Madness at a local pub or sports bar. Those are standard fun things I like to do—Also, at the end of the day, I love reading a good article about something fascinating going on in the world. I love reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic, just things that make me think. Just appreciating everyone else’s worldviews that often as medical students it’s hard to do because we’re so busy. Those are the things I like to do for fun.

MEENA: Nice. We’ve covered quite a bit. Anything else you’d like to add?

ATUL: I would just say in summary that these are extremely challenging and exciting times ahead of us. What we’re seeking to do this year in trying to mobilize and connect amongst medical students to make us meaningful again is going to be undertaken in a way it’s never been done before. The ultimate fruits of these efforts are going to provide for a lifetime of impact and change for the better. And that’s why it’s all worth it. That’s what I’ve realized from those insights from Iowa, what’s possible when you bring people together. That’s why I ran. That’s what I hope to accomplish now. I think that’s an amazing amount of opportunity to us as medical students. I’m excited for the year ahead of us. The team of people we have is just absolutely outstanding. We look forward to special opportunities in the year ahead. (smiles) And also a few good Friday nights.

MEENA: (laughs) Absolutely.

Author’s note: This interview transcript has been edited and condensed for publication purposes. Atul Nakhasi approved all changes prior to publication.

Meena Thatikunta Meena Thatikunta (4 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

Northeast Ohio Medical University

Meena Thatikunta is a Class of 2015 medical student at Northeast Ohio Medical University in the 6-year accelerated BS/MD program. Meena enjoys writing about health policy, advocacy, and humanism in medicine--with a bit of humor. Pending her survival of medical school, she hopes to pursue neurosurgery or orthopedic surgery and found a media company which delivers health policy and advocacy content through innovative means. Meena's media experience includes television host, radio co-host, producer, writer, and web designer.

Meena is a recipient of the AMA Foundation's Leadership Award. She served as a Health Policy Fellow with the Ohio State Medical Association (OSMA) and currently serves as Vice Chair of the AMA Medical Student Section Committee on Legislation and Advocacy and Medical Student Representative to the OSMA's Focused Task Force on State Legislation.