An Interview With Impact Leader Aisha Sethi, MD

We’re shining the ProjectIMPACT Spotlight on Aisha Sethi, MD, an individual who is making a positive impact in healthcare by reducing racial bias in medicine. Dr. Sethi is interviewed by Ana Preda-Naumescu, a 4th-year medical student at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, incoming PGY-1 at Yale Dermatology, and VisualDx Student Advisory Board member.


Dr. Sethi
Ana Preda-Naumescu: Please describe your job and your favorite aspects of your current position:

Dr. Sethi: Currently, I am in private practice in Chicago. I was previously an associate professor of dermatology at Yale University and director of the Yale Dermatology Global Health Program. I remain an adjust professor at Yale University and continue to work closely with the Yale Global Health Program.

I recently made the transition from full-time academia to private practice; my favorite aspect of this new arrangement is that I still get to do what I love clinically, and I have more time to dedicate to my global health initiatives as a part-time academician. Currently, I am involved with a Migrant Health working group for Dermatology—we have an upcoming meeting in Malta where we plan to discuss healthcare guidelines for the WHO and for identifying and treating skin diseases in migrants.

As far as the private practice portion of my job in Chicago, where I am located, I get to work with very diverse patients from all over the world.  Chicago has always been special to me—it is where I started my career in academia. I was a program director, as well as the director of outreach for the Center of Global Health at the University of Chicago for over a decade. Now that I have returned to the city, I can say that I have finally found a great work/life balance. I credit motherhood for helping me take the steps necessary to prioritize that balance.

APN: What do you see as the biggest challenges in reducing bias in healthcare?

Dr. Sethi: Exposure. Students, residents, and faculty need exposure to diverse patient populations and their practices in order to reduce bias in healthcare.

For example, when I was the program director at the University of Chicago, I introduced a hair-care curriculum for the residents. Many of our patients were skin of color and I realized that residents, and faculty, did not often have the appropriate exposure to the different hair practices that impacted the care of these individuals. I made a point of taking residents to several hair salons in the area and had them watch the “Good Hair” documentary by Chris Rock. While this was over a decade ago, I think this exposure and education was paramount in addressing biases and helping our trainees’ meet patients where they are.

Ultimately, there needs to be an emphasis on education at both the resident and medical student level to combat bias in healthcare. While lectures and educational handouts may be helpful, providing individuals with limited exposure to skin of color (ie, regional) with opportunities for electives in diverse locations is also paramount to change the narrative.

APN: Are you currently working on something that addresses healthcare inequity 

Dr. Sethi: Within the global health arena my focus has been improving experiences for students in global health, in addition to exposing them to diverse healthcare systems. The purpose of this latter endeavor is so that students, and trainees in general, may gain an understanding and awareness of healthcare inequity on a global scale.

My interest in global health, and my current focus on migrant health initiatives, came from my grandparents. They were refugees after they moved from what is currently India to Pakistan. Migrant health, as a result, has always been very important to me. There is a wonderful international dermatology group interested, and involved with, migrant health. Together, we are working on guidelines for migrants. Skin disease is within the top 3 causes of morbidity for these individuals—not only in migrants on arrival but also in refugee camps. These guidelines will largely encompass recognizing, and treating, skin conditions.

APN: What or who inspires you? 

Dr. Sethi: I grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s, during a time when the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. At that time, the foreign minister of Pakistan was a man named Sahabzada Yaqub Khan. He was a diplomat, as well as the ambassador to France and the Soviet Union, before becoming the foreign minister of Pakistan. He really inspired me through the work he did to bridge cultures. He did a tremendous deal to help Pakistan navigate a very difficult time. I was just 10 years old then, but I recall wanting to be a diplomat in some shape of form. I wanted to work to bring people together, regardless of their differences.  In a way, I have done that through medical diplomacy with my Global Health Initiatives and advocacy for migrant health.

APN: What advice would you give to students or residents who are interested in addressing healthcare disparities? 

Dr. Sethi: I would advise students and residents interested in healthcare disparities to go out and work in areas where these disparities are present. See it firsthand, talk to the community—various factors lead to healthcare disparities, and it is important to have a basic understanding of what those factors are. Seek out opportunities to interact with different communities and address your own implicit biases.

APN: How do you pledge to make an impact to improve health equity? 

Dr. Sethi: I pledge to make an impact to improve health equity by getting the next generation ready to face and understand these challenges. I plan to do this through continuing to mentor students on important issues surrounding inequity in healthcare, providing students with diverse opportunities for exposure, and being always accessible to individuals that want to make a difference.

This Project IMPACT blog series was created to highlight leaders who are making a positive impact in healthcare by reducing racial bias in medicine.

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