A doctor's calling: Pushing for routine HIV testing

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | March 29, 2017

When Bijal Shah, MD, entered college, she thought that someday she might become a corporate attorney. But after a stint in business, she switched her sights to medicine, and today works to implement routine HIV testing in the Grady Health System. Shah is an assistant professor in Emory University School of Medicine's emergency department and works at Grady Memorial Hospital.

After college graduation, Shah worked for five years in business. And while she says it was interesting and her career was advancing, it just seemed "like a job" to her, not a passion. Her work in medicine, particularly at Grady, hasn't been like that. "It's something I get to do every day that is a privilege," she says, "and I get to serve my community and people within our community who don't always have access to care."

Shah's passion for HIV work began when she was in medical school and took a year off to live in India. During that time she had the opportunity to work with a physician who had been taking care of HIV patients for over 20 years. In 2006, the CDC issued a recommendation that all patients in acute care settings ages 13 to 64 be tested for HIV regardless of their chief complaint or risk profile. Shah then found herself with the opportunity to try and make routine HIV testing part of Grady's services. "It just seemed like it was the perfect fit for me," she says.

Shah is on a team that is currently working at 13 sites in the Grady Health System – the emergency department, the walk-in clinic, and in the system's six neighborhood clinic locations. Since the routine testing program began, over 80,000 patients have been tested and over 500 new HIV diagnoses have been identified. Shah says one of the reasons she thinks routine testing is so important is because it de-stigmatizes the idea of getting an HIV test. 

In addition to her work at Grady, Shah spends part of her time every week at the School of Medicine serving as a small group advisor. "You develop this very wonderful relationship with these students," she says, "and not only do you get to spend time with them teaching, but you also learn a lot about yourself."

The doctor grew up in Atlanta. Both her parents immigrated from India in the mid-1960s. When Shah decided to switch away from the finance and economics route she'd been following and into medicine, she had to tell them. "They were pretty surprised," she says.

Shah and her husband have been married 17 years. She met him when she was an undergraduate at Emory. Together they have two daughters, five and two and a half.

"It's just really a matter of treating patients as if they're your family," she says, summarizing her approach to clinical medicine. "And to let them know that that's how you approach their care."