Doctor Kate Otto Chebly is a an internal medicine resident physician, author, and traveler. In her interview with the Power Thread, Kate emphasized the importance of interpersonal relationships in the world of medicine and approaching patients holistically.
Kate, where did you grow up and how did it influence your passion for global health?
I’m from a small town in Rhode Island, moved to New York City for college in 2004 and since then, also have lived overseas for several years. In college, I majored in International Relations. I wanted a career that would allow me to make a difference in the world, and I focused on studying international development, specifically global health.
While I was an undergrad at NYU, I studied abroad in Ghana for a semester. There, I learned about cross-cultural communication, the positive and negatives aspects of foreign aid programs, and building friendships across international borders. I worked for a non-profit, co-founded by Alicia Keys, that provides lifesaving HIV medication to children in African countries who otherwise had no access to these treatments. I found the work a fulfilling and exciting complement to my studies in global health.
After college, I stayed at NYU to get Master’s in Health Care Policy. After, I spent the next several years working in Indonesia and Ethiopia on programs that expanded access to healthcare for marginalized communities, like people living with HIV, and rural mothers and children. I loved my work. Most of my projects introduced me to doctors who made an enormous impact in their patients’ lives, and I felt pulled toward this type of service work. I began to take night classes in chemistry and biology, and eventually applied and was accepted into medical school, with the goal of becoming a primary care physician.
Today, I am an internal medicine resident physician at New York University, where I work at Bellevue Hospital, NYC’s largest public hospital, and home to patients of diverse backgrounds. Many are immigrants, some undocumented, and most struggle to attain health care due to language or financial barriers. I love my job because it allows me to provide healthcare to people who otherwise have difficulty accessing it.
“I feel passionately about flipping that script, to make my patients feel powerful in their lives and know that, as their doctor, I will support them.”
How do you go about spreading the knowledge you’ve built in both your studies and work?
Along my journey, I also wrote and published a book about my experiences abroad—Everyday Ambassador—to share the message that you don’t need to be a diplomat or a celebrity to make a difference in the world; you just have to be skilled in building meaningful relationships, bonds that create understanding and cooperation. I also turned my book into an organization of the same name, that is dedicated to training global citizens through the curriculum I set out in the book.
Everyday Ambassador offers supportive lessons and resources to people who want to make a difference in the world. The notion of relationship-based service work has guided me on my own career path as well. I’ve seen that there are many ways you can make a difference in the world—whether through programs and policies that reach many people, or one-on-one interactions that focus on individual healing—and in my writing I encourage people to create careers that work best with their own personalities and passions.
Eventually, I would love to have a primary care practice where I have my own patients who come back to see me regularly. I think a lot about the fact that our social lives affect our health and wellbeing—our relationships, our environments, our education, our economies—and understanding a patient’s social landscape is crucial to properly treating their medical conditions. Primary care is beautiful to me, because it involves caring for a patient as a whole person—not just their disease—and developing a therapeutic relationship over a long time period.
What does it mean to you to be powerful?
In medicine, doctors are often perceived as powerful because they have extensive scientific knowledge and resources at their disposal. Being sick can be an overwhelming experience, and patients can often feel powerless. I feel passionately about flipping that script, to make my patients feel powerful in their lives and know that, as their doctor, I will support them. I feel most empowered when helping other people to become empowered. It is when we work together that we create plans that can truly change someone’s health, and life.