Stanford Medicine hosts first virtual week-long Health Matters event

Stanford Medicine held its first virtual Health Matters, an annual week-long event run by Stanford Medicine, from May 10-15, designed to educate the public about advances in medicine and wellness. All lectures were public and medical experts covered topics. including Asian-American health care, violent conflict, applying for medical school, among others. The Daily attended three of the week’s events, each detailed below.

Address gaps in Asian-American healthcare

Latha Palaniappan MS ’01, highlighted medical care gaps for Asians and Asian Americans in a May 12 Health Matters lecture.

She said that while Asians make up 60% of the world’s population and 30% of the Bay Area population, less than 1% of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding goes to research that could promote the health of these populations. Globally, Asians make up less than 11.8% of drug trial participants worldwide.

Grouping all Asian ethnic groups misunderstand the true levels of poverty and disease, Palaniappan said. Asians are often seen as the ‘model minority’ as only 12% in the United States live in poverty. However, the breakdown of the Asian subgroups shows that Cambodian and Thai populations have much higher rates of poverty and are very similar to those of African American and Hispanic people.

She said this discrepancy also applies to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and cancer. For example, one-third of Indian American men die of heart disease and one-fifth die of cancer – the exact opposite of Korean American men, where one-third die of cancer and one-fifth die of heart disease.

She also discussed the high incidence of type 2 diabetes in Asian individuals. Research shows that Asians get type 2 diabetes at much lower body weight indices than Caucasians, so the typical recommendation to avoid obesity may not help them avoid the disease. A hypothesis developed by Palaniappan’s research group is that it is the absence of muscle mass, and not the abundance of fat, that triggers type 2 diabetes in Asians. In that sense, it may be better to emphasize strength training instead of losing weight.

Palaniappan also addressed the “Asian flush” phenomenon that can occur when an Asian is unable to process alcohol, and said current research suggests it should be taken seriously. She said the flush has been linked to an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer due to the presence of a mutated gene in these individuals.

Finally, she discussed how Stanford’s Center for Asian Health Research and Education aims to help provide a model of healthcare that addresses the needs of Asian Americans. The center has studied national Asian-American health datasets and uses these findings to educate patients and caregivers and provide opportunities for personalized healthcare.

Violent conflict has serious consequences for the health of children

Stanford pediatrician Paul Wise, recently appointed by the US federal court as the special expert overseeing the treatment of migrant children at the border, spoke about the impact of violent conflict on children abroad and at the border between the USA and Mexico, at a Matters event on May 13.

In humanitarian situations, Wise said children suffer the most.

“Millions of people worldwide have been displaced by organized violence,” Wise said. “About 40% of all children in the world live in countries affected by armed conflict.”

It’s not just the physical trauma that affects children in their lifetime, Wise said, then went on to explain how children sometimes lose their entire families as a result of violent conflict. He discussed his experience working in Mosul, Iraq, where he met a young boy whose foot had been amputated as a result of a bomb explosion.

“We played for a quiet moment, until one of the doctors said he was ready to be fired,” Wise said.

Wise said the doctor was silent, with a worried look on his face. “But we don’t know where to send him because this child is an orphan,” said the doctor.

After surviving a bomb, the child woke up with no family as both his parents had been killed in suicide bombings for ISIS.

At the US-Mexico border, many children are still waiting to be reunited with their parents, Wise said. He summarized former President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which was in effect for a short period in 2018. According to the policy, children were placed in a shelter while their parents were criminally prosecuted.

While the policy is no longer in effect, Wise said the condition of children at the border remains dire. He said that during the pandemic, President Trump’s Remain in Mexico program prevented asylum seekers from awaiting their hearings at the border. However, the Mexican government stated that they would not take back unaccompanied children or families with young children, leaving children trapped in detention centers for weeks.

Wise said he is often asked why parents would risk their lives and the safety of their children to cross the border, but many don’t realize that Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela are some of the most dangerous countries in the world. He was referring to a photo of children sitting around a body bag. Wijs explained that children experience scenes like this all the time.

“Exploitation, sexual predation, extortion, violence and murder characterize everyday life in these areas,” he said.

Wise said the global community has a responsibility to witness poverty and educate itself about the complex social and political aspects of these regions, stating that people can volunteer to help families who have been granted asylum to adapt to life in the United States.

“The contradiction inherent in humanitarian health needs to be experientially shared with young people,” said Wise. “Humanitarian regions exist in a juxtaposition of high ideals and profound cruelty, of compassion and nightmares.”

Empathy and resilience are important qualities for aspiring physicians, according to medical school panelists

Stanford’s Med School Morning, a Health Matters event for high school students considering a career in medicine, featured Stanford Medicine Admissions Associate Dean Iris Gibbs MD ’95 and several current students in the MD-Ph.D program. The session was led by former NASA astronaut Steve Smith MBA ’87.

Smith discussed his experience of being rejected by NASA several times before his eventual success, telling students never to give up on their dreams – even if future success feels uncertain.

“When the going gets tough, you have to dig deep in and think about how to get past it,” said Gibbs, stressing the importance of resilience in medicine.

Gibbs encouraged students to find out what matters most to them, rather than trying to fit in a mold of what others are doing. She likened this to being a stem cell, saying that everyone starts with an endless array of possibilities of what they could become.

“You get a lot of signals from your environment, and it’s up to you to take those signals and mold yourself into the type of ‘cell’ you want to become,” Gibbs said. She added that she specifically decided not to pre-medicate in college, which gave her the opportunity to explore her interests and find out what she really loved to do.

“There wasn’t a moment when I decided I was going to be a doctor,” Gibbs said. “I always felt that I wanted to learn as much as possible.”

This intellectual curiosity is what’s important to medical schools, she said. Abby Thurm, MD ’27 Ph.D. ’27, said her decision to take medicine was also much later, and she even considered not going to college. Abi Mukund, MD ’24 Ph.D. ’24, said he was a computer science major who began pursuing pre-medical activities, such as clinical volunteering for fun, and realized it was something he could enjoy as a career.

Gibbs and the other panelists also stressed the importance of teamwork in medicine. The medical students said they often work with physician assistant students, nursing students and physical therapy students from whom they have learned many skills.

The medical students explained that finding a balance between academics and relaxation is crucial, both during college and in medical school. They said finding a hobby such as running or an academic interest outside of medicine can help restore a sense of purpose when life gets very stressful.

In giving advice on skills students should keep in mind for a career in medicine, Gibbs reminded students that one of the most important things to have is empathy.

“Being able to understand the science is a really important part, but a good doctor looks at the actual patient and treats them, and sees them as more than just their illness,” she said.

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