Be the change you want to see in medicine

This festive period Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

Our first wise woman is Dr Sonia Kumar, Director of Undergraduate Primary Care Education and MEdIC (Medical Education Innovation and Research Centre).

My drive and motivation have always been underpinned by a strong and unshakable desire to make a difference, to try my best to make the world a better place. As you age you start to question where your underlying values come from, where and when did they start and from whom.

My father was a child of the Partition

Caught on the wrong side of the Indian border, my father as a very young child was forced to flee his then native country and travel with my grandmother, aunts and uncles, in the dead of the night on a train where children were muffled, and babies thrown overboard so the train could safely and silently make its way across the border. Years later he arrived in the UK in his twenties in search of new beginnings and despite the discrimination and racism of the 60s, he and my mother like many other immigrants of that time, showed untold strength and sacrifice to give us the next generation a better life.

Being a second-generation British Asian growing up in 70s and 80s Britain, I have not always had an easy ride. However, I am constantly reminded and humbled by the resilience and determination of my father and his forefathers and the opportunities and equality they fought for. It is an absolute privilege to honour those sacrifices and continue their legacy by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’  in all aspects of my work.

Bring your whole self to work

In my current role, I bring my insights as a woman, British Asian, mother, clinician, educationalist, innovator, social justice advocate, researcher, leader and manager. Assimilating this jigsaw of identities within my work has been like winning a golden ticket, influencing how I lead, innovate, transform and evolve the training and nurturing of tomorrow’s doctors.

Founding MEdIC (Medical Education Innovation and Research Centre) has been yet another golden moment in my career: I have been able to combine the pillars of patient care, innovation, research and social responsibility to drive forwards a vision of making a difference by linking education and societal engagement through community-engaged education.

My team has led numerous projects over the years empowering medical students to lead social change in our community. I feel proud of my team and our students who are leaving trails of positive change in our local community, for example:

  • all year 2 students health coach vulnerable patients in the community;
  • year 3 students conduct community action projects where they work with community groups to address needs and build on strengths;
  • all year 5 students will look after and advocate for their own caseload of patients providing a bridge link between primary and secondary care;
  • all medical students will be linked and anchored to a local deprived secondary school sharing their skills in medicine and science with school kids who have not been invested in.

Students learning through service to those most in need has been a guiding principle in my work and so far, our research has shown this approach has far-reaching benefits for our students, their patients and the health system they are placed in.

Not everything goes to plan

There has been a lot that has gone well in my career and an equal amount that hasn’t gone so well too! Along the way, there have been many lessons I have learnt and at times I try to harness those and reflect on them as I continue on my journey.

I’ve realised that one of the keys to unlock reward and success is surrounding yourself with people who you share values with and respect, people who energise you and each other as you work to a collective vision. I try to respect and invite challenge and change, role modelling a humble approach to accepting when things need to change direction and transforming a team’s culture from fear and uncertainty, to being curious and brave.

Opportunities often don’t come knocking twice at your door, but more than that sometimes they never come to your door at all and you need to go out and seek them. If you have good ideas and are confident in what you can bring to a table, people listen, eventually.

Be the change you want to see in the world

Instilling this sense of social justice, desire to change the status quo and make a difference, I believe is a responsibility we should all carry whatever our background, the role we have and in any way we can. It’s our way of utilising the privileges we have been given and power that then comes with that. A few months ago, there was a special moment when my youngest daughter (aged 12) said ‘Mahatma Gandhi said be the change you want to see in the world, mummy how can I be the change if I don’t know what needs changing?’. You can never start too young!

Each of us will have our own journey and story, for me it started decades ago in another continent, in another time. If in some way we can unite this shared sense of responsibility and desire to make a difference, we can become part of something greater: a constellation of real, powerful, unstoppable change, as we stand together to move us and our history on towards a better place.

Dr Sonia Kumar is Director of Undergraduate Primary Care Education and MEdIC (Medical Education Innovation and Research Centre).

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