Interview with Dr. Farah Naz Khan, Endocrinology Fellow at Emory University School of Medicine [Show Summary]
Dr. Farah Naz Khan is not only a physician, but also an engineer and Bollywood expert. Listen in as she shares why she started with an engineering degree before going on to be a doctor (and the positives in doing so), as well as the ups and downs on the road to becoming a doctor. She’ll also share her reasons for having a love-hate relationship with Bollywood.
Endocrinologist, Writer, and Bollywood Critic Tells Her Story [Show Notes]
Our guest today, Dr. Farah Naz Khan was an Endocrinology Fellow at Emory University School of Medicine. She earned her bachelors in Environmental Engineering from MIT in 2009, went straight to medical school, and graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2013. She did her residency in Internal Medicine at Emory and just completed her endocrinology residency at Emory with a particular interest in diabetes in the developing world and equal access to endocrine care for all patient populations. In addition, she is a published author with bylines at The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Vox.com, Scientific American, Huff Post India, and more. Oh, and one more thing: she is a Bollywood expert.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? What do you like to do for fun? [1:27]
I was born and raised in Birmingham, AL, and then went to Boston for my undergrad at MIT. After four years in the cold northeast I needed to defrost, so I came back home and spent four years at University of Alabama Medical School. After that, I wanted to be in a bigger city, so I went to Atlanta, where I was until I came to Seattle, which is where I am now.
How did you go from an undergrad degree in environmental engineering to immediately starting medical school? When did you know you wanted to be a doctor? [2:30]
Being a doctor was always in the cards for me. I was premed from day 1 in college. My dad said to all of us kids that you can do whatever you want with your life but you need to get an undergrad engineering degree first so you always have that to fall back on. Being an engineer actually allows me to see things from a different mindset which is very helpful.
How was the method of learning different? [4:29]
Engineers are taught to problem-solve. You are given the tools and here is the problem set, so go do it – lots of tests in engineering were open book, so with more of a problem-solving focus. In medicine you are required to do lots of memorization, so adjusting from a very problem-solving-based method to a memorization-based method was challenging for me.
Are you happy you went straight from undergrad to medical school, and if so, why? [5:11]
I am going to waffle on that. I do wish I had taken some time off, but at the same time I am really glad I finished when I finished, because otherwise it would have ultimately taken more time to become a doctor. The reason I wish I had taken a break is because it’s really tough to get a break once you are in med school.
What did you like best about your medical school experience at U of Alabama? [6:09]
The professors and mentors were so supportive from day one. I really wanted to do work in India, but didn’t have any connections there, and UAB helped me make it happen. They also didn’t have much experience in global health in India, but they supported me – I got funding, and was plugged into the right research mentors. When I was deciding residencies I said to the internal medicine program director and assistant program directors there that I didn’t want them to feel bad that I was going to leave, and they didn’t want ME to feel guilty! They just said, “You are carrying the UAB name with you wherever you go and that is good enough for us.”
How did you decide to focus on IM and endocrinology? [7:32]
With medical school you need to decide on a surgical or non-surgical route. The only surgical area I considered was ophthalmology, and I pretty quickly decided that was not for me. Internal medicine was really where I wanted to be – with primary care, the continuity of care, and the longstanding relationships you build. I knew going into medicine I would probably do endocrinology also, as my dad has always struggled with type 2 diabetes. The engineer in me loves the idea that with endocrinology, in theory all of the hormones are doing their job, and if they aren’t you should be able to trace your way back to figure out what is wrong.
Was there ever a time either in either medical school or since when you really wondered if you had made a mistake and thought about leaving medicine? [9:51]
At the very beginning of medical school they had us do this cheesy exercise where they made us write down a mission statement. They said, “Trust us you will need to look at this.” My mission statement was essentially, “You have always wanted to do this, and always remember the people who have supported you.” On my most depressing days, on surgical rotations I found miserable, I would remember that mission statement. That got me through medical school, though I came to realize that in school you are still protected. You have frustrating experiences, are tired, and it’s stressful, sure, but you are protected from the bureaucracy of medicine. When I started my intern year, taking care of patients, I contemplated taking a year off, but one of my IM advisors said, “You are going through a tough time, but trust me, if you can power through this we can talk about you taking a break in another year or two.” I owe her, because otherwise I might not have finished. It’s jarring because you go from being a med student who is somewhat spoon-fed and generally protected, to being thrown into the hospital with new long white coat – from student to primary care provider to some very sick patients. The hours are demanding, and you wonder how to put the order into the system, how to get in touch with the nurse, where is the cafeteria – it’s a new job that is emotionally and mentally exhausting. Working with sick patients takes a huge toll.
My number one advice I tell premed students is to make sure you are doing this for the right reasons, that this is what YOU want to do, and not what someone else wants you to do.
Can you discuss your love-hate relationship with Bollywood? [17:23]
Bollywood is one of the world’s largest film industries based out of Dubai. The vast majority of the movies dating back to the earliest ones are romances, with song, dance, great costumes, and good-looking people. When I was a child it was about connecting to a country I had never been to. I was born and raised here but felt strong ties to South Asian culture, which I felt through Bollywood. As I got older my true love morphed to love-hate because I saw beyond the superficial things and didn’t like the message being delivered in many of the movies, about a woman’s role in society, for example (that she belongs in the kitchen, serving her husband). Many movies are very chauvinistic, but that flew over my head as a kid. When I watched the same movies as an adult I saw something different. One good example was about five years ago there was a movie that misrepresented mental health and totally mishandled it.
I read a few of your articles, and you are an excellent writer who has commented on a wide range of topics. What do you like to write about, and how do you find the time to do so? [20:36]
Writing for me started as an outlet to cope with the stress of residency. I started my blog my fourth year of school, primarily focused on Bollywood and South Asian culture, but then I started to comment on healthcare issues specifically with the purpose of demystifying the hospital experience for people not in it. I try to clear up some of the things that are confusing or controversial.
As a resident you wrote a scathing critique of flexible work rules for residents which resulted in residents like you working 30-hour shifts in an ICU. (For the Daily Beast) [21:49]
I was in the midst of a rotation, and I didn’t think removal of the duty hour cap was good for my patients. I did implement a napping rotation for our team, but even so was still not operating at my best. Since the article was written, partial results of a study were published that found no difference in resident education between flexible duty hours vs duty hour caps. When you ask patients what they want, they want a well-rested doctor. There should be a way to balance the needs of the patients and the needs of the doctors.
What do you like about the practice of medicine? [25:26]
What we are able to do as physicians, getting involved in improving someone else’s life is a huge privilege. Every career helps people on some level, but I am glad I picked medicine because I know that at the end of the day there isn’t much else without your health.
How do you see your career evolving after your fellowship? [26:36]
The job I’ve accepted at the University of Washington is Clinical Assistant Professor. What I love about this role is there is lots of clinical time and I will see my own patients, but I am also part of this bigger group with resources and teaching medical students, and involvement with other research projects, bringing back the global health piece. That is how I see myself going forward.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [28:25]
Maybe what is my #1 piece of advice to someone thinking about medical school. I would answer, “Do it if you want to do it, and don’t let naysayers like me tell you it’s not for you, just don’t have rose-tinted glasses.”
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