On March 29, 2014, the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association (APAMSA) hosted the “Becoming Physician Leaders in APIA Health” Regional Conference at Rush Medical College in Chicago, IL. Medical students from multiple medical schools in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kansas attended the conference.
The conference was to raise awareness and advocate the most pressing health issues APIA population in the United States face today, and to promote leadership among Asian Pacific American medical students. The speakers included five successful and passionate physician leaders in the country and community.
Physicians are leaders in many arenas: internationally through influence in media, locally by organizing health fairs and community advocacy, or within a specialty through excellence and aptitude. It is important for physicians to not only excel in their fields, but also to follow their passions and advocate for underserved populations. Their passions, however, are sometimes limited by racial and gender stereotypes, corporation hierarchy and lack of government provision. Despite these challenges, these leaders are able to persist their cause, adapt to the environment and make a difference.
“Medicine is the passport to the world. There are so many things you can do being a doctor that other professions cannot,” said Dr. Mona Khanna, who was the keynote speaker. Dr. Khanna is a triple board-certified and Emmy Award winning medical journalist from Fox Chicago News.
The uneasy relationship between media and medicine has improved in recent years with the popularity of the Dr. Oz show and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s presence on CNN. Dr. Khanna, who left her medical director position to follow her passion in journalism at a local news station in 2002, also helped to increase physicians’ presence in the media. She worked from ground up and gained the respect and recognition from her colleagues. Since 2009, she has been reporting for Fox Chicago News promoting health literacy and healthy lifestyles through media.
“It is important to recognize the critical role the media plays in how people think about doctors, what people know and understand about medicine, and how to move health care forward,” Dr. Khanna remarked, “As physicians, we have a unique skill.”
In addition to empowering the public through health education on television, Dr. Khanna also found a niche in global humanitarian work to promote health and participate in disaster relief. Since her trip to Sri Lanka to cover the devastating tsunami in 2004, she dedicated her time to volunteer as a physician for disaster reliefs nationally and internationally while sharing her experiences as a media correspondent on Fox News. As with any form of media, her intention to promote health literacy was sometimes hindered by the producer’s desire for higher viewer ratings. Instead of educating the audience about a cervical cancer treatment that could also preserved fertility, she was asked to speak about facial dermatitis caused by bleach wipes, a much less prevalent problem but makes a dramatic headline. Despite such limitations, as a practicing physician, Dr. Khanna’s work in global humanitarianism through media has been unique.
The inspiration to follow one’s passion despite obstacles as shown by Dr. Khanna was also seen in another speaker Dr. Karen Wu. Dr. Wu broke stereotypes to follow her areas of enthusiasm. A successful orthopedic surgeon at Loyola University, she was the first female orthopedic surgeon to be awarded the prestigious Aufranc fellowship in hip and knee reconstruction at the New England Baptist Hospital.
“There are very few women in orthopedic surgery, and even fewer Asian American women in orthopedic surgery,” Dr. Wu said.
As an Asian American female in a male-dominated specialty, Dr. Wu endured unwelcomed stereotyping and skepticism from others in the field.
She recounted an experience she encountered a few years ago at a procedural training course for orthopedic surgeons. Greeted with a room of male surgeons, she was acutely aware that she looked different, but still laughed at herself for being hypersensitive. Her reactions changed, however, when she learned that another sales representative had asked “if she was any good.” As the only female Asian American orthopedic surgeon present, it seemed obvious that her capability was questioned due to her skin color and gender.
“It can be frustrating to know that that happened and that how other people perceive you may even affect your ability to advance in your career,” Dr. Wu explained. “Take that anxiety and hyperawareness as a challenge. The best way to combat that internally so that it doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy is to know who you are and what your strengths are.”
Her experience is not unusual among women in the workforce, especially in medicine and science. Despite the obstacles involved in becoming a female orthopedic surgeon, however, Dr. Wu proved her capability with dedication and perseverance, and was eventually promoted to Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at the Edward Hines Jr VA Hospital.
In addition to the international arena, media, and within a specialty, physicians can also be leaders right at home in the community. Dr. Phuong Tran, a primary care physician and Hepatitis B activist, serves and advocates for the Vietnamese population in uptown Chicago. Her dedication permeates through the health fairs she organizes annually and the time she puts into seeing a voluminous number of patients, of which over 50% are minorities and over 70% are non-English speakers.
“Help them to access whatever is available. There are a lot of things we can do everyday,” she said. “It’s difficult to treat a patient who eats rice and is diabetic. You have to advice them what to do to improve HbA1c to control the sugar, but you cannot tell them to stop eating rice. You can hand out information to stop eating potatoes, but they don’t eat potatoes, so what’s the point?”
Dr. Tran pointed out the necessity for Asian American medical students to raise awareness and educate non-Asian peers and colleagues in cultural competency. To demonstrate the importance and benefits of cultural competency in physicians, she told the audience, full of eager first and second year medical students, that sometimes amidst the intention of helping people, physicians provide education and recommendations while often forgetting the practicality of their advice.
Challenges and limitations were frequent obstacles among these physician leaders. Dr. Khanna’s autonomy to report the most pressing medical issues was limited by the program producer’s desire to appeal to certain demographics. Dr. Wu’s passion in orthopedic surgery was restricted by the color of her skin and gender. Dr. Tran’s passion was limited in the lack of support from the government and limited physicians who are willing to take government-assisted insurance. Despite these limitations they encountered, their passion allowed them to persist and adapt effectively to the changing environment and succeed.
As a closing remark, Dr. Tran said, “what we choose to do everyday has a profound effect on the lives of other people, so try to give what you can at your level and help other people. It’s a privilege.”
For now, however, as medical students, “do whatever you can, enjoy being a student and enjoy learning. The knowledge you have will help other people.”