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A Passion for Policy: Harris Ahmed Serves as Domenici Student Scholar

Written by Harris Ahmed, MPH

In early 2017, the Domenici Institute approached BCOM Dean George Mychaskiw II, DO, about having a BCOM medical student apply to the Domenici Student Scholars Program. Dr. Mychaskiw called me in and discussed the program with me, and we both felt it made sense for me to apply. I have a deep passion for policy due to my work and educational background in the field of public health. Before coming to BCOM I earned my bachelors of arts in sociology from the University of California, Irvine and a masters in public health from the University of Southern California. I then served as a community health educator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

The Pete V. Domenici Institute for Public Policy was established in 2008 on the main campus of New Mexico State University. The Domenici Institute aims to engage the community and promote better understanding of regional and national public policy. Part of that entails hosting several forums each year, as well as the annual Domenici Public Policy Conference, which draws in over 1,000 attendees from the Southwest region of the United States.

Policy, and specifically health policy, provides me an avenue through which I can impact multiple communities at once, rather than just an individual. Although public health and medicine have similar ultimate goals of improving health outcomes, the two fields go about accomplishing this in different ways. Public health focuses on prevention, communities, and systemic change, while medicine is more curative and individual-based. Policy work allows me to provide relief to the health of people in ways that medicine cannot. Although policy is not a lucrative field, and it is time consuming, it is still worth it to me. As a physician, I wish to continue drafting and advocating for policy.

Last June, I received notification of my selection as a Domenici Student Panelist for the 2017 conference. I was immediately tasked with conducting research over the summer on the topics of equality in education and physician workforce readiness. At the conference in September, I was responsible for asking a series of questions based on my research to two of the conference’s invited speakers: Pedro Noguera, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA; and Antonia Novello, MD, former surgeon general of the United States. Our discussion focused on the lack of quality in education in urban and low-income cities disproportionately affecting minority communities and how that restricts the ability of minority students to pursue careers like medicine.

After the conference, I continued on from a panelist to the Domenici Student Scholars Program, which aims to “train and inspire the next generation of public policy researchers and leaders.” As part of the program, I was required to create a policy white paper on a topic of my choice. I wanted to focus on a topic that I am, not only well informed on, but one that will, more importantly, benefit New Mexico. Due to the demographics of the state and the intense healthcare provider shortage, I felt increasing physician workforce diversity was a pertinent topic.

Research has shown conclusively that lack of cultural awareness and culturally congruent healthcare providers lower health outcomes, increase healthcare costs, and worsen patient experiences. I hope to get across to legislators, medical school leadership, and other local community members that there are proven models for increasing diversity in the physician workforce, in particular from Native and Hispanic populations who have already implemented them at local levels across the nation. My paper presents an integrated, multi-faceted approach that begins in elementary and middle schools, and highlights the importance of factors such as medical school student organization involvement, a holistic medical school admissions process, and increasing loan forgiveness for service program funding.

I delivered a presentation on my policy proposals at NMSU in front of local administrators, faculty, students and residents. In both my white paper and presentation, I laid out how multiple parties could contribute from parents and K-12 educators, to medical school admissions committees and medical students, to policyholders. Increasing diversity within the physician workforce will take a cultural shift, something that can be difficult to convey through policy. I tried to overcome this by emphasizing the importance of everyone’s involvement.

Currently, I am in the process of finalizing my policy white paper, upon which it will be submitted to the Domenici Institute for consideration for publication in the NMSU Library archives. As I complete my medical education, I hope to continue my public policy work by continuing being an advocate for health policy. In the last year, I was able to work with my school to help pass a couple of bills including HM 33 that establishes a neurological disorder database in the state and HB126/SB108 that grants our students eligibility for loan forgiveness programs in the state.

At a national level, I traveled to Washington D.C with Dr. Mychaskiw to advocate for items such as Teach Health Center Graduate Medical Education and reducing federal caps on student graduate loans, both of which will directly benefit healthcare in states like New Mexico. Participating in the Domenici Institute’s conference and scholar program has reinforced the vital role that healthcare plays in policy and the tremendous opportunity physicians and medical students have in shaping the future of healthcare. Too often, those that do not practice or study medicine determine the direction of our healthcare system. Currently, there is a movement of physicians and medical students engaging the policy field. I am incredibly thankful for the Domenici Institute for allowing me to be part of this movement by providing such an impactful platform.

To learn more about The Pete V. Domenici Institute for Public Policy visit: