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“Notes from the Field” is a special newsroom feature, highlighting industry professionals working to transform healthcare. In this inaugural edition, we feature Betelehem (Beti) Asnake, MD.
Q: Tell us about your role as an anesthesiologist.
A: I recently completed my fellowship training in global health equity in anesthesia at UCSF Health (University of California, San Francisco). I am currently working at a private practice at Kaiser Permanente East Bay as a general anesthesiologist. I will soon be relocating to Los Angeles to join the UCLA Department of Anesthesia and helping lead their global health initiatives in anesthesia. My role as a general anesthesiologist consists of clinical work where I take care of surgical patients before, during, and after their surgeries. My non-clinical work mostly rests on bringing awareness to anesthesia-related health disparities, establishing partnerships with low-income countries, and leading mentorship programs for underrepresented minorities in medicine.
Q: What is one thing you’ve learned over the past year?
A: I learned that mentorship opens doors to those who might not have the connection they need to get to the next level. I say this because I am a first-generation immigrant in this country with no established generational connections in medicine. I have been extremely lucky to benefit from excellent mentorship through the years and wouldn’t be where I am today without the guidance and advice of my mentors.
Q: Have you found your pandemic silver lining?
A: While most of the world stayed home and quarantined, my job was to take care of patients and potentially expose myself and my loved ones to a deadly virus. I was able to realize that my everyday routine, my mere waking up to go to work, could indeed be such a lifesaving action for others. I am blessed that despite the exhaustion and fear that came with working in anesthesia during a pandemic, I was able to make a difference in so many patients’ lives.
Q: Who is your mentor?
A: When I was in residency training, I won a scholarship to go to Ethiopia and work in a non-profit pediatrics hospital. There was a senior pediatrics anesthesiologist on the panel who interviewed me for the grant. We became friends and kept in touch. She has now become one of my biggest mentors, as she helps empower me and guide me through my global health and overall equity work. I have several other mentors who not only motivate and guide me professionally, but spiritually as well. I think mentors are essential in guiding our paths in life.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in anesthesiology?
A: Seeing so many health care disparities in Ethiopia and taking frequent trips to the hospital for sick family members, I was inspired to join the medical field at a young age. After moving to the United States at age 16, I got diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor that required major surgery. My anesthesiologist played a huge role in making sure I came out of my operation without a stroke. My eyes opened to the field, and I fell in love with it during graduate school and medical school when I learned about physiology and pharmacology. Anesthesiology is a field that requires a lot of calmness, fast thinking, procedural excellence, and easy adaptability. We are the gatekeepers of the operating room, we make sure patients come in and out safely, whether it is controlling their blood pressure tightly or transfusing them with blood products during a surgical complication. We are called overhead in the hospital for critical patients needing immediate procedures. We get placed in very stressful situations, but I love the adrenaline rush and the gratification that comes with it.
Q: What is the biggest opportunity to improve healthcare?
A: The medical workforce is not diverse. For example, Black physicians make less than 5% of all physicians. There is also a significant health care disparity among patients of color. Multiple studies have shown that Black patients have more trust and are more likely to follow medical advice if they are treated by a physician of color. We need to do a better job in mentoring under-represented pre-medical students and getting them to medical school and residency in order to increase the pool of underrepresented physicians. This is why I created Mulu Mentor, a mentorship program that connects underrepresented pre-medical students to underrepresented physicians to provide them with the guidance they need to get to medical school. Many of our mentees are in medical school currently and it warms my heart knowing that a simple virtual mentorship program can slowly change the face of medicine.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing healthcare?
A: One of the biggest challenges I face as an anesthesiologist is the business-driven nature of medicine. Perioperative medicine is a money-making machine to say it in simple terms. The more surgeries and procedures are done, the more the hospital makes profit. It becomes extremely hard sometimes to provide quality care to patients when you are constantly pushed for speed and productivity. I think this is one of the biggest challenges in medicine in general. Primary care physicians are expected to see 15+ clinic patients a day with 10-15 minutes facetime for each. It is simply unrealistic. Emergency physicians expected to treat 5-6 patients per hour, many with complex medical history, can be challenging. This often leads to physician burnout, overall job dissatisfaction, and, potentially, patient harm. We need to figure out a way to allow physicians to spend more time with their patients and less on their computers, without any financial repercussions.