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- Those of Asian descent living in the U.S. are too often considered just one monolithic group when, in reality, Asian Americans can include Hawaiians, people with Japanese, Vietnamese, or Chinese heritage, or even a Taiwanese or Indian background.
- When we have Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) leading the charge in areas like health, we can advocate for communities that need support most.
- From pioneers in HIV/AIDS research to COVID-19 responders, there are so many AANHPI leaders committing their careers to better the health of all of us.
Representation matters, especially when it comes to Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI). Too often, those of Asian descent living in America are inaccurately aggregated into just one group—when, in reality, there are so many rich subgroups and cultures among Asian Americans, from Filipino and Vietnamese heritages to those with Samoan backgrounds. Not only is it valuable to learn about and appreciate the differences among these groups, but when it comes to the health and well-being of AANHPI communities, it’s necessary to pull apart the data that make these groups unique in their health outcomes, risk factors, and more—a fact that AANHPI leaders know all too well.
From folks who paved the way for foundational research on HIV/AIDS to grassroots organizers who are helping to close the gaps in care for underserved communities, here are a few AANHPI changemakers advocating for a healthier world for all.
1. David Ho, MD: Discovered a breakthrough treatment for HIV/AIDS
After pioneering research on the treatment of HIV/AIDS, David Ho, MD, became Time’s Person of the Year in 1996. While experts once believed that HIV lay dormant in people for years before impacting the immune system, Ho, a Taiwanese American, conducted research to show that HIV replicates immediately once it enters your bloodstream. This breakthrough eventually led to the introduction of medicine that slows the virus’s activity as soon as it’s detected.
Since then, Dr. Ho has received several awards for his ongoing contributions to HIV/AIDS research. Recently, he received the National Leadership Recognition Award from the National AIDS Memorial, as well as a 2021 Asia Game Changer award from the Asia Society, a global nonprofit that works to forge closer ties between Asia and the West through education, arts, policy, and more.
“As a physician and scientist, I’m privileged to be able to make a meaningful contribution to combat HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that has killed 35 million people and infected another 37 million,” Dr. Ho said in a video accepting the Asia Game Changer award. “My colleagues and I are proud that this disease has been transformed from an automatic death sentence to a manageable condition.”
2. George King, MD: An early advocate of culturally competent diabetes education
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in four people in the U.S. who have diabetes don’t know they have the condition; and that number is even higher among Asian Americans.
To help address the issue, George King, MD, research director of the Joslin Diabetes Center, established the Asian American Diabetes Initiative (AADI). After launching in the early 2000s, the program now aims to study diabetes in the Asian American population, communicate research findings to both healthcare providers and Asian American communities, provide diabetes education through culturally relevant programs, incorporate diverse voices to promote health equity, and collaborate with local, national, and international organizations to raise awareness about diabetes in these communities.
In addition to establishing the AADI, Dr. King has also led groundbreaking research on the causes and treatments of various diabetes complications.
“Everything has proven to be more complicated than expected, which has been frustrating, but we still made real progress in the treatment of patients,” Dr. King told the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC), including improved mortality and “higher quality of life” for people managing diabetes.
3. Abraham Verghese, MD: A champion of empathy in doctor-patient relationships
You might not think about it much when you go to your appointments, but your relationship with your doctor plays an important role in your health—a point that Abraham Verghese, MD has strongly advocated for in his work.
An Indian American physician who began his medical training in Ethiopia, Dr. Verghese is known for studying the role of empathy in doctor-patient relationships. Once he came to the U.S., he witnessed and wrote about the AIDS pandemic firsthand in the 1980s, a time when there was no reliable treatment course for people with HIV. During those years, Dr. Verghese worked closely with young people living with AIDS, helping them navigate the heavy challenges of premature death through empathetic communication.
In 2015, Dr. Verghese received a National Humanities Medal at the White House from then-President Barack Obama. Currently, he is the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor and vice-chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the School of Medicine at Stanford University.
When it comes to fostering healthy doctor-patient relationships, Dr. Verghese wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that it’s all about promoting a sense of trust and communicating a clear sentiment to people experiencing challenges with their health: “‘I will see you through this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.’”
4. Raynald Samoa, MD: A top advisor on health equity among AANHPI
As a proud Pacific Islander from Hawaii, Raynald Samoa, MD, an endocrinologist at City of Hope, has passionately advocated for AANHPI communities throughout his career. He specializes in diabetes and cancer (both of which disproportionately impact AANHPI populations), and after the pandemic hit the U.S., he co-founded the Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team, which aims to increase the amount of available COVID-19 data specific to Pacific Islander communities, develop and train more healthcare providers for these communities, and provide reliable COVID-19 resources and support.
Most recently, Dr. Samoa has taken that advocacy to the highest level, becoming a member of President Biden’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, which advises the President on ways to advance equity and opportunity for AANHPI communities.
In an interview following his induction into the commission, Dr. Samoa echoed Dr. Verghese when he highlighted the value of empathy in his work: “It’s the most important thing,” he said. “You can never know everything you need to know about a patient. Empathy helps you learn more.”
5. Ho Luong Tran, MD, MPH: From refugee to renowned public health leader
Ho Luong Tran, MD, MPH came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee who went on to lead a decades-long career in public health service, with a particular focus on advancing the well-being of communities of color.
After chairing the State of Illinois Governor’s Advisory Council on Asian Affairs and the City of Chicago Mayor’s Council on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Dr. Tran went on to become president and CEO of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a national advocacy organization dedicated to helping AANHPI communities attain the highest level of health and well-being possible. She also founded the National Council of Asian Pacific Islander Physicians (NCAPIP), a nonprofit organization of AANHPI doctors who are committed to advancing the health of their communities and eliminating health disparities in these communities.
Dr. Tran has been especially active in raising awareness about the prevalence of diabetes among AANHPI populations, including the fact that more than half of Asian Americans with diabetes are undiagnosed. Her organization, NCAPIP, created a campaign called Screen at 23, which seeks to screen every Asian American person with a body mass index (BMI) of 23 or higher for diabetes. Since some guidelines have recommended screening for diabetes at a BMI of 25 or higher, many Asian Americans—who, compared to people of other ethnicities, tend to have lower BMIs—may have been missing potential diabetes diagnoses for decades.
In an interview at the American Diabetes Association’s 2012 Community Volunteer Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Dr. Tran said it’s a “privilege” to be able to not only access this information about the health of her community but to share it with others at a grassroots level.
“It’s all so we can prevent [diabetes], stop the [condition] if possible, and find a cure for it.”