Nailah Thompson, DO, MPH began practicing medicine because she wanted to help patients live healthier lives. But she soon realized that the system is broken. Instead of working to prevent disease, doctors spend much of their time fixing problems that already exist. That’s why she decided to make an unconventional career move and pursue a Master of Public Health Degree, even though she was already a doctor. The decision has positively impacted her practice, and she hopes that her passion for culturally competent, preventative medicine will inspire change in the field of healthcare.
Dr. Thompson, you have taken a special interest in preventative medicine. How does your Master of Public Health degree augment the training you received in medical school? How would you describe your unique medical perspective?
I became interested in medicine as a career because I wanted to help people with diabetes to live as healthy a life as possible. My sister was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 12 and struggled with the disease until her death in 2002 at the age of 24. After watching my sister's struggle, I wanted to help those with diabetes remain healthy as long as possible and avoid the many consequences of the disease. As I began practicing medicine, I realized that, unfortunately, our healthcare system is not focused on helping people remain healthy. Instead, the focus is on practicing reactive medicine—managing the consequences of diseases that (a majority of the time) could have been prevented with education and lifestyle changes. I also realized that in order to make a change I needed to step back and try and reach as many people as possible before they became sick. This desire led me to pursue my MPH and a fellowship in Preventive Medicine after completing my Internal Medicine Primary Care training. This training helped me focus on more than just reactive medicine—like treating someone's blood pressure once it is too high. I learned that I could also focus on diet, exercise, stress and education—teaching people how their specific lifestyles and cultures may put them more at risk. I think this is a very unique style of medicine that my patients appreciate.
"In Haiti, after the earthquake, every person I cared for was hurting. Many had lost their limbs, and many had lost their families and all their belongings. Yet, they were grateful to be alive and sang songs to God in our makeshift hospital. It brought me to tears. It reminded me that I am blessed and I have nothing to complain about."
While playing on the USD basketball team, you received WCC All Conference honors as well as All Academic Conference honors. How did your experience as a Division I athlete prepare you for work as an osteopathic physician?
I think my experience as a Division I athlete gave me many tools that I have carried into my career. One is time management. I was a biology major and chemistry minor while playing basketball. I had to learn quickly to manage my time effectively, so that I could fit in practice, classes, labs and studying—even while on the road.
I also learned to be a part of a team, which I think is imperative in health care. As a physician, the only way I can provide my patients with the best care is to utilize every member of our team, which includes medical assistants, nurses, pharmacists, health educators and more. In basketball, you learn to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses and also those of your teammates. To be successful, you have to use the right team member at the right time. The same is true when taking care of patients, and I believe my patients receive a higher standard of care because they have access to a team of providers.
As an osteopathic physician, I use medicine to treat my patients, but also focus on diet, exercise and lifestyle choices. As an athlete, if you don't eat right, train appropriately and sleep sufficiently, you will not be able to perform at your highest level. The same applies to my performance as a physician and also to my patients’ health.
I also learned not to stress about things that are out of my control. In basketball, I could prepare to the best of my ability, and then study my opponent to prepare for a game. But there were still things that would happen, and I would need to adjust my strategy as the game unfolded—and, unfortunately, sometimes we still didn't win. As a physician, I do all I can to care for my patients with the highest standard of care, but unfortunately sometimes things do not go the way we would expect. All I can do is my best.
You have cared for patients in Guatemala, Uganda and Haiti. Why do you feel it is important to serve others globally, and what did you take away from those experiences?
My time caring for patients in Guatemala, Uganda and Haiti has changed my life. At a young age, my mother instilled in my sister and me that it was always important to give back and to serve those in need. After my sister died, we established a foundation in her honor. The Halima's Smile Foundation has held backpack giveaways, Thanksgiving meal giveaways and Christmas gift giveaways for the past ten years. We are also supporting 12 children in Saroti, Uganda (where I worked) so that they can go to school.
When I was serving patients abroad, I learned about being grateful. The people were so grateful for my services. In Uganda, I worked with Internally Displaced Persons who had fled the violence of the Lord's Resistance Army. Despite the fact that many had been tortured and abused, they had the most beautiful smiles. In Haiti, after the earthquake, every person I cared for was hurting. Many had lost their limbs, and many had lost their families and all their belongings. Yet, they were grateful to be alive and sang songs to God in our makeshift hospital. It brought me to tears. It reminded me that I am blessed and I have nothing to complain about.
How did USD's liberal arts curriculum prepare you for your career?
Courses like religion, philosophy and logic made me a broader thinker. The curriculum at USD was my foundation for learning about other religions, cultures and beliefs. These are things I take into consideration so that I can practice culturally competent medicine. Through my interest in cultural competence, I became aware of disparities in healthcare and now I have devoted my career to reducing disparities that exist among different races and ethnicities.
"As I began practicing medicine, I realized that, unfortunately, our healthcare system is not focused on helping people remain healthy. Instead, the focus is on practicing reactive medicine—managing the consequences of diseases that (a majority of the time) could have been prevented with education and lifestyle changes."
What are your goals for the future?
I want to change the culture of medicine. Instead of reactive medicine, we should focus on prevention and health education. Proactive medicine helps patients remain healthy and reduces the risk of problems that could have been prevented.
Besides practicing clinical medicine, I want to continue to focus on health at a population level. Why is there a higher rate of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke in African Americans? Once we identify the disparities, we can implement programs to reduce them.
I would like to continue to practice international medicine, because I believe it not only shapes me as a physician, but as a person.
- Anne Malinoski '11