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Stanford Medicine hosts first virtual week-long Health Matters event

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Stanford Medicine held its first virtual Health Matters, an annual week-long event run by Stanford Medicine designed to educate the public on advances in medicine and wellness, from May 10 to 15. All talks were open to the 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.

Addressing gaps in Asian-American health care

Latha Palaniappan M.S. ’01, highlighted the gaps in medical care for Asians and Asian Americans in a May 12 Health Matters talk.

She said that while Asians make up 60% of the world population and 30% of the Bay Area population, less than 1% of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding goes towards research that could advance the health of these populations. Globally, Asians make up less than 11.8% of participants in drug trials globally.

Grouping all Asian ethnic groups together creates a misinterpretation of actual levels of poverty and disease, Palaniappan said. Asians are often thought of as the “model minority,” as only 12% live in poverty in the United States. Disaggregation of the Asian subgroups, however, shows that Cambodian and Thai populations have poverty rates that are much higher and 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 instance, one-third of Indian American males die of heart disease, and one-fifth die of cancer — exactly opposite to Korean American males, 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 acquire Type 2 diabetes at much lower body mass indices than white individuals, so the typical recommendation of preventing obesity may not help them to avoid the disease. One hypothesis Palaniappan’s research group has been developing is that it is the absence of muscle mass, not the overabundance of fat, that triggers Type 2 diabetes in Asians. In this sense, emphasizing strength training rather than weight loss may be more helpful.

Palaniappan also addressed the “Asian flush” phenomenon, which can occur when an Asian person is unable to process alcohol, saying that current research suggests that it should be taken seriously. She said that 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 is focused on the needs of Asian Americans. The center has studied national datasets on Asian-American health and is using these findings to educate patients and providers and to yield opportunities for personalized healthcare.

Violent conflict has dire impacts on children’s health  

Stanford pediatrician Paul Wise, who was recently appointed by the U.S. Federal Court as the special expert overseeing the treatment of migrant children at the border, spoke about the impacts of violent conflict on children, abroad and at the U.S.-Mexico border, at a Health Matters event on May 13.

In humanitarian settings, Wise said children are the ones who suffer the most. 

“There are millions of people displaced by organized violence around the world,” Wise said. “Approximately 40% of all children in the world live in countries affected by armed conflict.”

It is not just the physical trauma that impacts children throughout their lifetime, Wise said, then explaining how children sometimes lose their entire families due to violent conflict. He discussed his experience working in Mosul, Iraq, where he met a young boy whose foot had been amputated due to a bomb blast.

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

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

After surviving a bomb, the child woke up without a family, as both of his parents had died as suicide bombers for ISIS.

At the U.S.-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 brief period in 2018. Under the policy, children were placed into a shelter system while their parents were put through criminal proceedings.

Although the policy is no longer in effect, Wise said that the condition of children at the border remains dire. He said that during the pandemic, President Trump’s Remain in Mexico program barred asylum seekers from awaiting their hearings at the border. The Mexican government, however, declared that they wouldn’t take any unaccompanied children or families with young children back, resulting in children being stuck 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 referenced a picture of children crowded around a body bag. Wise explained children experience scenes like this all the time.

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

Wise said the global community has a responsibility to bear witness to the poverty and to educate themselves on the complex social and political aspects of these regions, stating people can volunteer to help families granted asylum adjust to life in the United States.

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

Empathy and resilience are key qualities for aspiring doctors, according to medical school panelists

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

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

“When it gets hard, you need to dig deep inside and think about how you can push past it,” Gibbs said, emphasizing the importance of resilience in medicine.

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

“You get lots of cues from your environment, and it’s up to you to take those cues and shape yourself into the type of ‘cell’ that you want to become,” Gibbs said. She added that she specifically decided not to be pre-med in college, which gave her the chance to explore her interests and find what she really loved doing.

“There wasn’t an instantaneous moment when I decided I would be a physician,” Gibbs said. “I always just felt like I wanted to be able to learn as much as possible.”

This intellectual curiosity is what is important to medical schools, she said. Abby Thurm, M.D. ’27 Ph.D. ’27, said her decision to pursue medicine also came much later, and that she even considered not going to college. Adi Mukund, M.D. ’24 Ph.D. ’24, said that they were a computer science major who began pursuing pre-med activities like clinical volunteering for fun and realized that it was something they might enjoy as a career. 

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

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

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

“Being able to understand the science is a really important part, but a great physician looks at the actual patient and treats them, seeing them as more than just their disease,” she said.

This article has been corrected to reflect Adi Mukund‘s correct pronouns and spelling. A previous version of the article incorrectly spelled their first name as “Abi.” The Daily regrets this error.

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Sophia Nesamoney is from Atherton, California. She is a STEM Research Reporter who hopes to pursue careers in medicine and creative writing. Contact her at nsophia ‘at’ stanford.edu.