Future of Public Health: Q&A with Azmina Lakhani, MD, MPH

Feb 27, 2014, 2:02 PM


Future of Public Health is an ongoing series focused on the emerging faces in the world of public health. We spoke with Azmina Lakhani, MD, MPH, about what helped lead her to the field and where she hopes to go from here.

NPH: What’s your educational background in public health?

Azmina Lakhani: I went to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy for high school, and then I did medical school, undergraduate and public health all at Northwestern University in Chicago. I received a BA in psychology and global health as an undergrad and then for the next five years I attended medical school and earned a Master’s in Public Health, as well.

NPH: This seems like something that you went into knowing full well that this is what you’re interested in. What was it that encouraged you to pursue a degree and a career in public health?

Lakhani: I had sort of been interested in health care in general in high school, and I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to do research or clinical work or public health work, but in college I really started becoming interested in public health. First through global health, I started learning about different health care systems abroad and doing some volunteer work in Ecuador and Mexico City. That’s really when I got interested in health care delivery systems and also how one can have a greater influence on health.

I appreciate the clinical side. I’m a family medicine resident in training currently, so I love working one-on-one with patients. I also see a lot of value in making an impact on a larger scale—whether that’s how someone gets their health care, what insurance systems we have in place, or the traditional public health things that you think of such as vaccines—that have a really large impact on people. But I think for a shorter answer to your question, I really got interested in college and then built on that in medical school while I was getting my MPH.

NPH: Within the field of public health, what’s your primary interest? What really speaks to you? The global approach?

Lakhani: I think public health is just so awesome because it has so many different facets, and to be honest, I don’t have one particular interest in terms of public health. During my year at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) I worked on a project called PlayStreets. It’s a very simple idea where we close down streets in the city—neighborhood streets—to allow children with little access to public spaces to have a place to play. The whole intent is to get people out there, meeting their community members, and, in the long term, trying to reduce childhood obesity. It’s kind of a lofty goal, but I am interested in making resources available to people so they can take control of their own health on a broader scale and PlayStreets was one example of that.

I also am really interested in health care delivery systems, another facet of public health. Even in the United States, looking at insurance and uninsured rates and increasing access and questioning how we can address the supply issue on a large scale in this country with the lack of primary care physicians.

And, I am also interested in global health. I hope in the future to do some combination of the three and hope to practice both here and abroad on systems issues.

NPH: What are you doing in the world of public health at the moment?

Lakhani: I’m just so bogged down in family medicine residency at the moment. The most that I can say that I’m doing for public health currently is trying to stay up-to-date on reading.

My family medicine residency is in Lawrence, Mass., which is an impoverished community about 45 minutes north of Boston. We have a pretty low socioeconomic status population and pretty low health literacy across the board in the population here, and so one of the things that I’ve been working on is partnering with local schools—high schools in particular—in the city of Lawrence in terms of increasing education and access to reproductive health resources. So far, I’ve just had some meetings with school staff, some of the local school district personnel and some nurse practitioners who actually practice at the school-based health centers in the high schools. I’m hoping to get more involved and have that be my community project while I’m here.

NPH: Is that a community project just because you’re doing good for your community or is this part of the residency and part of the program?

Lakhani: We do have a community medicine longitudinal block in our residency, so I’ve been able to use some of my time through that community medicine curriculum to do this, but I’m hoping to expand it beyond just community medicine time as well.

NPH: Is there any surprising lesson that you can point to that you learned and that you’re going to take with you throughout your career?

Lakhani: Public health is full of surprises. Particularly in my year at CDPH, I was struck by just how wide the net of public health reaches. You may think that you’re working on a project about childhood obesity, but you realize that you have to get everyone involved. That’s one of the things that I do love about public health, just how broad it is and how many disciplines it involves. But I was surprised by how much we had to reach outside of our comfort zone to get things done, like talking to police and parks and recreation, and then roads and zoning.

It’s fascinating how broad the scope of public health is and I love that. It has definitely helped me realize that if there’s something that I’m interested in doing I can’t have a narrow view about it. It has to be pretty broad and broad-reaching, and the way to get things done in public health really is to use a multifaceted approach.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.