Harvey Cushing once said “A physician is obligated to consider [the patient] in his world,” uncannily presaging the everyday struggle we each face in attempting to care for our patients. We can identify the disease, but we can’t get insurance approval for the proper treatment. We recognize the severity of illness, but the hospital does not have beds available. We can surgically intervene, but there are insufficient resources for the patient to get the therapy and rehab they need for a full recovery.
Fortunately, there are many neurosurgeons who see this and are inspired to try and change the system. To change and enhance the environment in which we practice is to take on the challenge of service to both patients and fellow neurosurgeons. Maya Babu, MD, MBA, is one example of how a neurosurgeon has served physicians, medical students and patients through the American Medical Association (AMA).
Dr. Babu first became involved in service to neurosurgery as a medical student member of the AMA at Harvard Medical School. Katie Orrico, director of the Washington Office recalls, “I believe I met Maya at an AMA meeting. She struck me as a sheer force of energy. Within a year or so of working with her it became clear that she had the intelligence and political savvy to move up within the ranks of organized medicine.”
During her residency at Mayo Clinic Rochester, she served on the Governing Council of the Resident and Fellows Section of the AMA, as a member of the Council on Legislation and most recently as the resident member of the Board of Governors of the AMA from 2013-2017. She is currently the neurotrauma fellow at Jackson Memorial in Miami.
What or who first inspired you to volunteer and serve?
Maya Babu (MB): My grandfather and grandmother were very involved in community service. He was a high school teacher in southern India shortly after the end of British Rule, when everyone had a strong sense of being active citizens. And he and his wife opened a gymnasium as a public good. If you couldn’t pay, it was free. If you could pay, you paid. And they in turn inspired my parents, who I recall volunteering while I was growing up and still volunteer today.
How did you become interested in and passionate about healthcare policy?
MB: When I was in high school, I planned to go into law. I was very involved with speech and debate and I loved it. Based on that, I thought I would be a litigator. But, when I was in my second year of college, I became quite ill. I was sick for months and that experience really changed me. I decided to go into medical school, mainly because I was both inspired by the compassionate and skilled doctors that were able to help me and because I was frustrated and disappointed by how difficult it was to navigate the healthcare system.
I was fortunate to have a family member in healthcare, who ultimately got me to the right specialists. I think it’s a shame that, while we pride ourselves on having the best healthcare in the world, most patients aren’t as fortunate and often can’t get to the right people – through no fault of their own. That’s what drives me – the issues around and the injustice of access to care.
What made you decide to pursue neurosurgery during medical school and how did you get involved with organized neurosurgery?
MB: To be honest, when I started medical school, I liked the brain. And when I started out, I thought I’d do neurology, neurosurgery or psychiatry. My first rotation in third year was surgery and I was assigned to the neurosurgery service [at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)] for my first week. What left the most lasting impression is how, as neurosurgeons, we interject in people’s lives at the most vulnerable, most difficult times. And I fell in love.
But, I had this interest in healthcare policy and there was a stereotype that the surgical specialties were not very forgiving in allowing [one] to have other pursuits. It was Dr. Brian Nahed [then resident, now faculty at MGH] who helped me bridge the two and introduced me to the Council of State Neurosurgical Societies. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t have to give anything up. I was really impressed by this facet of neurosurgery that was dedicated to improving practicing conditions for neurosurgeons and advocating for patients with neurological disease.
What do you say to other physicians who want to get involved, but aren’t sure how?
MB: I would encourage them, at a minimum, to be a member of their society – both the specialty and the state medical society. Show up to a meeting of the AANS, the CSNS, the State Medical Society, the AMA. Show up to a meeting and voice your interest. Contact someone in leadership, and say, “This is what I’m really passionate about.” That matters so much – we always need passionate people to work on projects, serve on committees or educate us about an underrecognized issue.
Not everyone has the bandwidth, the time or the interest in being involved to the extent that I have been and that’s ok. Start small. This can be as small as volunteering to cover your partner’s practice or covering your co-resident’s call so that they can attend a meeting. Or, it could be making a Political Action Committee (PAC) contribution to support others’ direct involvement because you can’t or don’t want to be directly involved. I think that any way we support our colleagues to pursue advocacy and service, whether by mentoring, financial support, educating neurosurgeons-in-training … all of this is service to the profession. All of this, at all levels, has an impact and I think this is our professional responsibility to our colleagues and our patients.