Profile with Leana Wen

 Leana Wen (Missouri & Merton 2007) is currently a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School and an emergency physician at Brigham & Women’s/Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of When Doctor’s Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests (St Martin’s Press 2013). She holds a B.S. in biochemistry from California State University, Los Angeles, an M.D. from Washington University School of Medicine, an M.Sc in Economic and Social History and an M.Sc in Modern Chinese Studies from Oxford University. 

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Leana Wen: Right now, Boston is home. I’m actually about to move to D.C. in a few months.

Rhodes Project: What will you be doing in D.C.?

Leana Wen: I’m going to be a professor in emergency medicine and health policy at George Washington University. I’ll also be the director of patient-care centered research there.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Leana Wen: I read Waiting by Ha Jin. It’s a real page-turner. He’s Chinese-American also, and I just realized that he lives in Boston. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet him before I leave!

Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?

Leana Wen: I’m having a return to classics phase. So right now, I have “Cello Concerto” by Elgar, played by Jacqueline Du Pre, who was such a phenomenal artist.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Leana Wen: I wanted to be someone who makes a difference. I had no idea what that meant exactly—whether it was through medicine, policy, advocacy, public health, or writing. Over time, it’s become this amalgamation of all of the above, which I’m hoping will translate to something that does make a difference at some point.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Leana Wen: Hearing the stories of my patients, and to be able to tell them there is a way to make a difference. As a physician, I am privileged to hear many stories from my patients. And to be able to hear them in a way that makes a difference in their health-care, and then to be able to make a difference in health policy overall is something that is really special to me.

Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part then?

Leana Wen: There are a lot of problems for which there are not easy solutions. It’s often easy to blame the system, but at the end of the day, I have to remind myself—and we all have to remind ourselves—that we are the system, whether it is as patients or healthcare providers. There is something we can do, even in the face of seeming helplessness.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman interested in pursuing a career in medicine?

Leana Wen: First, be certain about why you want to do it. This is what I tell everyone, whether it is a man or a woman: don’t aim for a position, but aim for your passion. Once you identify what it is you want to do, find opportunities around that. Second, think about the importance of balance earlier rather than later. I don’t just mean balance in terms of when to get married and have children, but I mean balance in terms of other pursuits in your life. Especially for highly ambitious people, it is easy to focus only on your academics and forget about the reason why you do things, or to only pursue activities and forget about spending time with your family. So, think about these issues earlier rather than later. Third, never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. For so many of us, as women but also as people pursuing non-traditional careers, people will tell us that this is not what you should be doing. They’ll say, ‘You’re too smart to enter this type of career’, or, and I have heard this a lot ‘You’re not qualified for this. Why don’t you leave for those who are?’. I’m a first generation immigrant and nobody ever said to me, you should become a Rhodes scholar! But you need to follow your passion and know that you can do it. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it. Because you can.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you recently?

Leana Wen: I’ve been travelling to talk about my new book, When Doctor’s Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, to patient groups, bookstores, universities, churches, and just people across the country. I’ve been surprised at how much faith patients have in doctors. That’s great, in some ways, but patients also have to realize that doctors are people too. Doctors may have medical expertise, but they require you—the patient—to participate actively in your own healthcare. Because you are the expert in your body, and it’s really a partnership between doctor and patient that will make a difference in your healthcare.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Leana Wen: I love reading, writing, and dancing. Reading takes me to another world. Writing is an opportunity for me to take a breath. I work as an emergency physician, and we often see life and death situations that I can’t talk about but I want to express in some way.  Writing is that outlet for me. As for dancing, I’ve been dancing all my life. At Oxford, I did competitive ballroom. Ballroom, Latin, and salsa—these are all things I still very much enjoy as a way to decompress.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you and why?

Leana Wen: When I was a medical student, my mother was misdiagnosed for over a year before she was finally diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Going through her illness while I was in training to be a physician very much shaped who I am. Aiming to improve healthcare is something very personal to me. Her story inspires me every day.

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