Name: Alok Patel, MD
Education: University of Washington, University of Arizona College of Medicine — Tucson
Areas of Expertise: Healthcare social media, Patient education, Interprofessional relations, Medical journalism, Vaccines, Mucocutaneous Lymph Node Syndrome
Current Position: Clinical Instructor of Pediatrics at Columbia University
1. Why did you choose pediatrics?
During my third-year of medical school, a short-lived time when students are supposed to magically find their calling within healthcare, I felt utterly lost. There were aspects of many subspecialties I liked but I couldn’t actually tell if I would still feel the same way in twenty or thirty years.
And then pediatrics came careening into my life. I loved the patient population, the pathophysiology of pediatric diseases, and I saw ways into policy, journalism, innovation, or any other path my whimsical mind would push me on. It felt open-ended to me. Also, let’s be real, life as a pediatrician seemed pretty fun.
2. What is the last journal article or piece of research that significantly changed your practice?
Basically, any of the recent work published by Doug Opel, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital; a notable example being: “The Influence of Provider Communication Behaviors on Parental Vaccine Acceptance and Visit Experience.”
Dr. Opel’s papers highlight communication strategies with vaccine-hesitant parents. Communication, active-listening, and taking a presumptive approach with vaccine information, can make a cardinal difference. His work has greatly influenced the way I approach parents that may be sitting on the fence with vaccination, or any other decision.
3. What are your research interests?
I would say my largest research interests lie in health communication and digital health interventions. In other words, I am captivated in how the public receives information, synthesizes it, and whether or not it makes a quantifiable difference. In a world where the lay public is inundated with medical advice, I’m interested in truly understanding what works, and what doesn’t.
4. Can you explain more about your “hybrid career” as a healthcare professional and medical journalist?
I define a “hybrid career” in medicine, as one that involves more than pure clinical practice. I had several physician mentors who worked in administration, policy, or journalism and the translation of medicine into other areas of healthcare captivated me. I don’t think anyone wants to hear of a young physician aspiring to work part-time but if it’s in the name of advancing medicine or patient care, I say, go all out.
Thus, during residency, I made a massive venn-diagram of my interests, what I thought I was good at, and areas within public health that could use my help. Sounds idealistic, right? I narrowed it down to digital health, journalism, and media — the “health communication space”, I like to call it.
5. Outside of your daily practice, do you have any personal or professional projects that you’re passionate about?
The majority of my time, outside the hospital, is spent either working for a start-up (Medumo) or with work related to a television show I’m developing. I’m aware of how borderline insane I seem but hear me out.
Medumo uses an innovative platform to send patients automated instructions for medical treatments and procedures, without the use of an app. There’s absolutely nothing to download and patients get a digital version of lengthy paper instructions. We’ll have over 450,000 patients using our product in 2018 — it’s an exciting time for digital health!
I’m also helping to develop a television show — fingers crossed. It’s in the medical space, it’s fresh but that’s about all I can tell you!
6. What is a common misconception that other clinicians have about pediatrics?
I think a common misconception of pediatrics is that all pediatricians fit a particular personality mold. According to popular stereotype, pediatrics are passive aggressive, bubbly, refer to our patients as “kiddos”, and the males all wear bow-ties. Sure, we’re generally laid back, but we come in an array of different personalities! This goes back to my earlier statement about how broad pediatrics is.
I once had a colleague tell me I’m “seemed like a surgeon.” He explained it was because I was direct, didn’t mess around, and wasn’t afraid of confrontation. Thanks for the back-handed compliment!
Also, I’ve never referred to any of patients as “kiddos”, “nuggets”, or “cuties!”
7. If you weren’t in this specialty, what specialty would you do? If you weren’t a clinician what would you do?
If I wasn’t a pediatrician, but still in medicine, I probably would be a surgeon. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by trauma surgery. There’s innovation, adrenaline, and so much room for public health impact.
If I wasn’t in medicine altogether, I would’ve gone into the FBI or CIA. From a very young age, I was interested topics that concerned my parents such as: counter-terrorism, drug cartels, crime syndicates, and forensic science.
8. Who are your mentors?
Dr. Richard Besser, during his time as the chief medical correspondent of ABC News, guided me on a path towards medicine and media. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson inspires me daily, especially as a pioneer in digital health and was a close advisor of mine during residency. Dr. Doug Opel, we already touched on! I still call him for life and career advice.
And, I’m aware that Bruce Lee is an abstract answer but his philosophies on life, work, and adversity, are my guiding light for so many real-world situations.
9. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My residency program director once told me to “meet patients where they are, not necessarily where I want them to be.”
This simple piece of advice serves as a constant reminder to listen to unique stories and empathize with where patients and families are coming from — to incorporate cultural, socioeconomic, and personal variables into the patient-provider relationship.
Lastly, the Mark Cuban quote: “When you’ve got 10,000 people trying to do the same thing, why would you want to be number 10,001?” is one of my favorites. This past summer, I got a chance to meet him and tell him personally how this quote drives me. I think he appreciated it!
10. How do you unwind after a challenging day?
I unwind, most often, with martial arts. I grew up studying martial arts and it’s been the foundation of my mental sanity (as well as my ability to defend myself in a brawl should the situation arise). Jest aside, through martial arts, I’ve discovered a love for physical activity, meditation, and pushing my body to new limits. My practice has given me multiple tools to remove my mind from a stressful day, re-center, and come back. The mental strength I’ve gained from over twenty years of practice is invaluable to me.
A cocktail or spontaneous adventure with my beautiful wife is also an antidote to any challenging day.
11. What is the hardest thing about treating children? What is the most rewarding?
The hardest part of treating children is, not surprisingly, the suffering, both physical and emotional. Children get terminal illness and are aware enough to recognize that life isn’t fair. Being reminded of that disparity is hands-down, the most difficult part of my job.
The most rewarding part of pediatrics comes not only from the healing but also from the moments when we see a child empowered to take care of his or her own health. Every time a child tells me about their dreams to work in medicine or public health, I get reminded of why I love pediatrics.
12. What is the best way you’ve found to deal with noncompliant parents?
Active listening, empathy, and removing the “physician hat” is my recipe for “how to chat with noncompliant parents”. All too often, noncompliant parents feel alienated and naturally avoid difficult chats. I find that people sometimes just need an open ear. It’s amazing what you can uncover when you’re not trying to lecture and just being another person. It helps to ground yourself and consider what you would do in a similar situation.
DocNews and the Dialer App have been highly useful for me. DocNews is a way for me to stay updated while sitting on New York subways or in traffic; that feature has essentially converted my commute into productive time.
The Dialer App, for lack of a better word, is a godsend for me. Any pediatrician will tell you that inadvertently giving out your cell phone number, even work number, can spell trouble. The Dialer App allows me to consistently return phone calls, update families, and follow-up after a hospital discharge, with total anonymity!