Student Scholarship Spotlight: 2019 National Summit

Jonas Attilus, MD, MPH candidate

In our mission to invest in the next generation of health equity leaders, this year we awarded 25 scholarships to students and working professionals so that they may attend the 2019 National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in San Diego, Calif. Oct. 20-22. Our Scholarship Spotlight Series highlights the student leaders in the movement to build health equity who will be attending the summit. Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of the scholarship recipients.

“Diversity is good medicine because it treats disparity,” says Jonas Attilus, medical doctor and current Master of Public Health student at Rutgers University. Attilus has always embraced his identity because he understands how differences make us all relatable, particularly when it comes to achieving optimum health.

Attilus was born in Haiti and experienced many disparities as a child, including community illiteracy, poverty and exposure to violence. Neither of his parents finished elementary school and he was the first one in his family to go to college. Naturally curious, Attilus says he, “was always trying to understand the why behind everything,” and this led to his lifelong interest in science and medicine. After completing medical school, he felt his education wasn’t complete and decided to get an MPH to examine the societal factors behind poor health. “When you study medicine, you only focus on the biological aspect of health, you don’t see how the social and economic forces act together to create health, sickness or death,” Attilus said.

When it comes to the public’s health, Attilus believes diversity in how we approach care can be helpful in better understanding and addressing patient need. “Data shows that when the doctor looks like the patient, you have a better health outcome,” he said. He also believes that bilingualism is a benefit to health outcome because it inherently breaks a cultural barrier through communication. When patients are comfortable and feel that they can trust those taking care of them, they are more likely to be transparent about their health symptoms.

Although he grew up in a disadvantaged community, Attilus says he was never ashamed of his background, and would openly discuss the experiences that shaped him. As someone who has been impacted by social determinants himself, he wants to use his experience to educate the public and help others who have also been impacted. Patients must feel secure discussing any detriments to their health because health professionals cannot intervene if they are not fully aware of the environmental as well as historical issues their patients are facing. “You need the people who are left behind in the decision making because they have a unique perspective that nobody else can bring to the discussion,” he said.

The collective diversity of skill and expertise in medicine and health-related professions brings diversity of thought, allowing medical and public health scholars to learn from each other and fully understand the human experience, so that adequate care can be achieved. “Health is beyond medicine…I think that in order to improve health you need the policy maker, the community organizer…even the teacher who educates your kid.” Those who understand how different components affect health are more likely to collaborate with those in the community who have a direct influence to change lives. A certain demographic may be predisposed to some medical condition, but knowing a patient’s income and where they live should also be considered by medical professionals before a diagnosis and while treating the patient.

This is why Attilus believes it is essential that doctors take on a role of advocacy and work with policy makers. Simply prescribing medication or suggesting a change in lifestyle to improve health is ineffective if the root causes of poor health are not addressed first.

Attilus feels a calling to be an advocate for those who grew up like him, providing other underprivileged individuals with the tools they need to access the right health professionals, escape poverty and live prosperous lives. He wants to redefine how people are thinking about care, as well as expanding the doctor’s role.  He says he doesn’t see himself simply working in practice, but wants to teach from the social medicine perspective, be an academic physician and a global health consultant. His MPH program capstone examines access to care for undocumented immigrants. He will graduate with his MPH degree in 2020.