An Interview with Arshiya Baig, MD, MPH

by Olivia Jordan, MS2

Earlier this month, MS2 Olivia Jordan sat down with Arshiya Baig, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine, who will be leading a five-year, $1.8 million grant awarded to UCM from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH) to develop a program that could help improve diabetes care for low-income racial and ethnic minority patients.

Olivia Jordan: Much of your research involves Latino populations. What inspired you to work with the Latino community? What keeps you inspired in your line of research?

Dr. Arshiya Baig: Even [from] high school into college, I was very interested in the Spanish language and in Spanish literature. I volunteered in Paraguay for a summer during college and [that] was the first time I actually understood some of the struggles people are having in terms of health. Through my medical school, I also got my Masters in Public Health, and that gave me a community and population perspective on health disparities. When I did my research fellowship at UCLA, I started to understand a little bit more about health disparities in immigrant populations. In Los Angeles, there are huge Mexican, Central American, and Asian immigrant populations, so that’s where I learned more and [started] designing interventions. What solidified my interest was going and doing the Fulbright in Colombia. I was able to hone my skills in Spanish, so when I came to the University of Chicago and was deciding on what population I wanted to work with, it was actually very natural to extend my work to Latinos.

Also, I understand what it’s like to be a first- or second-generation immigrant. My parents emigrated here from India, so I understand the role of faith, culture, community, assimilation, and acculturation. Granted, I am not Latina or Mexican myself, [but] I felt like there was an understanding that I had, and I was very quickly able to form strong partnerships and relationships with leaders in the community and community members. What continues to inspire me are the stories that I hear from people. I am getting good feedback that the work that were doing is impacting lives, and that’s what I want to do.

Dr. Baig and Olivia

OJ: I can see that being rewarding, that a lot of the things you’re doing for them is really helpful.

AB: Yes, and a lot of it is being relevant to the people in the community. The education we give needs to be tailored to people. If I went around the Mexican communities here and told our Mexican patients to start eating broccoli, they would ask, “Uh, where would I get that? And how do I prepare it?” But if you take some of the traditional foods that they are used to eating and that are accessible in their neighborhoods, and work with them to improve the healthy content of that food, then you are making progress.

OJ: Could you tell us about your current project that was recently funded from the Office of Minority Health?

AB: Our project is one of 6 projects that has been funded by the Office of Minority Health through their Partnerships for Equity Program. In the pilot project we were already working on, we trained health center staff from six health centers, implemented diabetes group visits and a text messaging component at one of the centers, and we saw significant improvements in A1C across the sites from baseline to six months. For the continuation of this study, we will be recruiting up to 20 health centers, mostly Federally Qualified Health Centers across 10 Midwestern states, and will train the health center staff on how to implement diabetes group visits. They are also going to have a text messaging intervention [component] as a supplement to the group visits.

OJ: Are there any further questions regarding the Latino community that you see yourself pursuing?

AB: I think it’s important to train providers and patients, and educate patients on how to improve their management of their diabetes. In the literature, you will see everyone talk about the importance of family, especially in Latino populations, but I don’t know if we’ve done a good job in designing programs that target not just the patient, but the family unit. I think that’s what we need. We need to find ways to support the patient in their home environment, and that means providing training to the patient in how to communicate their needs to their family members or support people, and training family members on how to best support the person.

OJ: Who have been your mentors at The University of Chicago that have helped you shape your success in research

AB: Dr. Marshall Chin is main research mentor, and he is fantastic. He really is a visionary in terms of where research in health disparities is going. Dr. Deborah Burnet has also been fantastic in being supportive, understanding, and allowing me to channel my passion towards improving the health of vulnerable communities. She understands community-based research, so she has been a great mentor in teaching me how to partner with people in the community setting. Dr. Monica Vela has also been instrumental because she is a passionate person, especially about Latino health. She is someone who pushes you to do more and remember why you are doing the work that you are doing.

OJ: How have students contributed to your projects in the past?

AB: In every way you can imagine! We have had undergraduates help with recruiting patients for our studies and do data finding for grant writing even before the project starts. Throughout the project, we have had research assistants go out to churches and clinics on weekends and enroll patients, collect survey data, do interviews, enter that data into our databases here at the university, and do data cleaning.  Medical students have helped with recruitment and data entry, and have worked on data analysis and getting posters, presentations, and papers out. The projects I work on are really a product of many team members, including our undergraduates and medical students who have given critical input on our projects.

OJ: What do you think makes a successful mentor/mentee relationship?

AB: I think the mentees have to find, in the project or in the mentor, something that they relate to. So, be that an interest in health disparities work, an interest in research, or an interest in community work, there has to be some shared interest. Mentees [should be] curious. I think that is very important because you cannot rely on a mentor to motivate you all of the time. For the mentor, accessibility is really important. So when a student has a question or needs some guidance on next steps, being available to answer and troubleshoot those questions is important. Also, supporting the student in the project but not micromanaging [is important]: let the student face some problems and figure out how to deal with those problems. Identifying what the student is passionate about is important too, and make sure you support them in that passion.

OJ: What is one thing you want others to realize about your research in the Latino community that they may not already know?

AB: I would say that there are not many junior people who are using a community-based participatory research approach [that includes] engaging communities, defining the questions, defining the studies, going over the results and disseminating the results together. And that is the approach that I bring to Latino health disparities.

OJ: Would you like to add anything about your work?

AB: Addressing Latino health is really important because the population is growing. We really want to decrease the burden of disease and improve prevention efforts, and we need to find new ways of doing that. That’s why the work that we are doing in collaboration with so many other co-investigators, faculty, and students means that everyone’s adding something to solving this issue. And that brings me great joy because it is such collaborative work.