Name: Renaisa S. Anthony, M.D., MPH
Work: Assistant professor, Department of Health Promotion and Social and Behavioral Health at University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health
Undergraduate: University of Minnesota
Med School: University of Chicago
Master of Public Health: Harvard School of Public Health
Growing up, Renaisa Anthony, M.D., MPH wanted to become a veterinarian. But when her undergrad funding ran out, she took a research job and returned frequently to her hometown of Detroit. “That’s when I started to see what I now call health disparities,” she says. “We really did not have doctors that understood the community and limitations of poverty.”
She decided then to become a physician to help improve communities. “As I progressed through medical school, it became very clear that taking care of people without insurance and under sourced communities was going to be a challenge,” she says. “I had a really great mentor who said he thought I would be interested in public health.”
Today, Anthony is a dedicated public health physician with numerous awards and accomplishments, including a TEDx Talk, National Medical Association’s Top Doctor Under 40 Award (2011), and the U.S. Surgeon General Award for Outstanding Service on the Prevention of Preterm Birth Conference (2008).
What do you like best about working in public health?
It’s all about health promotion and disease prevention. In addition, it’s about transforming the health of communities in large groups versus one patient at a time.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
Monetary resources on prevention are very limited, and we invest a lot of funding into the treatment of disease. One of the things I’ve accomplished and am most proud of is working with legislators on Capitol Hill regarding the Affordable Care Act. I had the opportunity to testify before Congress on behalf of my patients. To be honest, I boycotted medicine and said I will not proudly wear my white coat until I can proudly take care of people based on their health status and not their insurance status.
What opportunities are available to public health physicians?
I think the sky is really the limit. First of all, I think it’s important to recognize the differences between public health and medicine.
Public health is population-based and community-oriented, whereas primary care is individualized…one patient at a time.
Also, financially, there’s a difference. A doctor who works full time in medicine probably earns more than a public health physician. I don’t make $300,000 a year. I make half of that, but I’m much happier with what I do. I feel my impact is greater.
The biggest question is…is this right for me? How would I fit in with public health? How committed am I to populations versus individuals?
Why did you choose public health?
It fit very well with the intentions I had. I could visualize the communities because I was disadvantaged. I thought of my family, friends and my own health care. My primary health care as a child was getting immunized in the emergency room. I learned later on that by becoming a doctor as well as a public health practitioner, I could take care of people and really have focus on improving population health.
Is there anything that surprised you about your career move?
It’s been a learning curve to understand the currency in academia, which is publications, grants and research combined with education and service. I would say I am very strong in education and service because that’s what I was doing anyway. However, translational, community-based and participatory research that’s really informed by the needs of the community has been a learning curve I didn’t have prior to this. I had a passion and I knew what some of the issues were, but it took me asking the right questions, partnering with the appropriate people and having the right mentors to learn that. I’m still learning how to do that effectively.
People in public health are really passionate about what they do. They are willing to continue doing it even in a fiscal environment where public health departments are constantly having their budgets cut. Public health physicians have to pool resources to be successful, and I didn’t necessarily know that. I work with so many people in public health whether they are in my specialty or not.
What’s your advice for physicians considering public health?
Explore the mission statements of public health schools and find one that resonates. Identify a population they are interested in. For me, it was women and children. There needs to be a population they are passionate about who they can read about, work for, advocate for and direct their attention to. I think it’s also helpful to find mentors—people who do similar work who you can shadow or do informational interviews with. It’s a myriad of experiences that developed into exploring this field.
Be in tune with what your purpose and passion is, and don’t be apologetic for it. Once you do that, follow your heart, be open to the opportunities that come your way, and be willing to take risks. I walked away from a career that, by the time I was 40, I could have been a millionaire. That was hard to do especially coming from an impoverished background. I knew that if I followed my heart and was good at what I did, the money would come. So, I didn’t focus on money. I focused on impact.