From Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine:

Giving Voice to the Most Vulnerable

Dr. Kimberly Chang takes the fight for health equity for underserved AANHPI communities from the clinic to White House

May 11, 2022

Kimberly Chang, MD, MPH

Kimberly Chang, MD, MPH

Even though Kimberly Chang, MD, MPH, dedicated her medical practice to caring for underserved patients from the outset, she couldn’t have foreseen the impact that a 15-year-old female patient, who came into the clinic on the brink of death due to severe injuries and illness, would have on her career path. The patient, despite her dire condition, refused to be admitted to a hospital for fear of being arrested on an outstanding warrant, and left without being adequately treated. Dr. Chang feared the girl would die; later, after tracking the patient down, Dr. Chang learned she was a victim of sex trafficking.

Today, Dr. Chang is a leading voice on issues of social justice and health equity for underserved Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities and has focused much of her 20-plus-year career on people vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation, caring for sexually exploited children and adults, and helping to develop national clinical and health policy recommendations and trainings on these issues. Dr. Chang serves as a Family Physician at Asian Health Services (AHS), a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Oakland, California. In 2021, she was appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 25-member body that advises President Joe Biden on public, private, and non-profit sector strategies to advance equity, justice, and opportunity for AANHPI communities.

As part of the KPSOM Speaker Series and in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Dr. Chang recently gave a talk titled, “From the Community to the White House: A Conversation with a Physician Advocate.” She also granted a brief interview to discuss her work at both the clinical and policy level. The following is edited for clarity and length.

How did working as a physician in a federally qualified health center, and treating underserved patients, lead to your involvement in issues related to human trafficking and exploitation?

Basically it's because of the patients that I saw. It’s not that I had predetermined that I was going to go into specializing in human trafficking and exploitation. It's more that I was seeing patients who were coming in for issues that were related to or because of their exploitation or their sex trafficking, if you will. And so just responding to the patient who's in front of you, who's in front of me and really trying to address the conditions creating vulnerabilities for them to be exploited or trafficked.

Community Health Centers, or Federally Qualified Health Centers, are basically designed and, by mandate, have to see people who are medically underserved. So that could be defined by racial ethnic definitions or categories, that could be defined through language access issues like limited English proficiency, that could be defined through poverty status, that could be defined through insurance or underinsurance or being underinsured. At Asian Health Services, our specialty is Asian languages and cultures. Most of our patients don't speak English, they're new immigrants or refugees, they're impoverished, they don't have a whole lot of access, they're publicly insured or uninsured, they might have differential class statuses of immigration status, some are undocumented, some are on asylum or refugee status. There's a lot of social circumstances that create vulnerabilities for them to be hidden, marginalized, or not have access to resources. This lack of access to resources is really across the board, whether you're Asian, Black, White, Latino, Indigenous; the lack of resources creates vulnerabilities to be exploited.

Why did you choose a career path with vulnerable populations as opposed to a more traditional practice?

I’ve always been drawn to where there’s more need. My residency was done at San Francisco General Hospital, which is a county hospital serving the same type of population. The focus and the mission at the time for that residency program was to prepare family physicians to take care of underserved populations. When I came out of residency, I actually did some work at Kaiser [Permanente] as an Asian care doc. I worked at a couple of private practices, and I worked at Asian health services, all trying out different settings. But it became clear to me very quickly that if I was going to do medicine and see patients, I wanted to see the patients who needed me the most. And then it wasn’t just solely about medical issues, but really struggling to tackle some of those community and social issues. 

Seal of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI)

Seal of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI)

What are the most important things that doctors can do at the clinical level to promote social justice and health equity?

We talk about learning the history of your patients. We talk about learning their past medical history, their family history, their medicine history, their surgical history. I really think the social history is hugely important because it gives you context of who your patient is and what they're going through in their lives and how. The context of what they're going through can impact their health, right? They're showing up for medical issues or physical complaints or emotional or mental health issues. But what are the causes of those? And oftentimes the causes of those things, whether they're chronic disease flares or uncontrolled diabetes or uncontrolled blood pressure, a lot of these things can be worsened or caused by the context of the patient. And I think it's important for social justice, and for us as physicians who are given the privilege of being able to serve and bear witness to other people's stories and sufferings and illnesses and problems, that we have a responsibility to use that information in a way to change the context or change the circumstances or the situations that are causing some of their problems or making it worse. That social context is hugely important in the health care of the patients that I see. For me, social justice means paying attention to those things as well as the individual physical or disease processes that they have. That's part of doctoring for me as well.

How can medical students have a positive impact on public health policy for under-resourced communities and uninsured populations?

Anyone can make a difference, right? So, medical students, yes, they are getting advanced medical training and very specialized knowledge, technical knowledge. But they also are human beings. And so, you take that humanity that we all have, that shared humanity, and you use it as you’re getting this platform and this expertise. Still physicians are afforded a lot of respect and a platform in our culture. You can use that to make your society or your community better. 

As a member of the President’s Advisory Commission, what do you believe medical students and physicians can do to help achieve health equity for these AANHPI communities?

First of all, pay attention to the work of the Commission. Our first in-person public meeting is scheduled May 12. It's a five-hour meeting, and it’s going to be recorded. When you get the report-outs from our subcommittees, you’re going to hear what we're focusing on and some of the issues that we want to make an impact on and provide recommendations for. We don't have all the answers or all the recommendations yet, but you can see how a lot of these thought leaders and experts on the commission are viewing these issues. So that's one way to start.

What can medical students do? They can pay attention. They can write, they can speak, they can be civically engaged in their community. They can lend their platform to others. They can uphold and uplift other people’s ideas. They don't have to always be front and center. It doesn't take a position of power to make an impact. You don't have to have the title or the job or the high salary. At Asian Health, I'm just another doc. I'm not in the executive suite, but I have influence.