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Woodruff Scholar sets sight on future as physician-policymaker

By Elizabeth Thompson | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Emory was a perfect fit for MD candidate Akshaya Kannan, thanks to the university’s affiliation with Grady Memorial Hospital. With a passion for working alongside communities, she’s one step closer to her dream of becoming a physician-policymaker.

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Akshaya Kannan, a 2020 MD candidate for the  Emory University School of Medicine, is from many places and is a self-described immigrant many times over. Born in Chennai, India, her parents were both physicians and immigrated to Bridgetown, Barbados, shortly after she was born.

When Kannan was five, her parents immigrated to the U.S. in search of better opportunities for her and her brother. Part of the move included them repeating their residency training in Massachusetts. 

“Residency training is difficult,” Kannan says. “I never wanted to be a doctor, because I hardly saw my parents when I was growing up. However, my parents absolutely loved what they did; and later in life, that passion for healing and working with communities spread to me and my brother.”

After her parents completed residency training, the family moved to the Orlando, Florida, area, which Kannan considers home.

She attended the University of Chicago for her undergraduate education, majoring in public policy. “I’m passionate about social justice and government-led change,” Kannan says. “I became a U.S. citizen when I was 16 years old, and it is something I never take for granted. I really believe in the American democracy and am inspired by people-led movements like the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the Independence Movement in India.”

During college, Kannan worked as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago advocating for a level one trauma center and received a Fulbright-Nehru Research Grant to study menstrual health and hygiene. This work formed the foundation for her passion of working with communities.

“I absolutely loved working with communities at the local level,” she says. “I didn’t want to simply ‘study’ communities, I wanted to work alongside them. That’s when I decided to apply to medical school.”

From medical student to public policy advocate

Because Kannan is extremely passionate about public hospitals, she wanted to train at a medical school affiliated with one.

Receiving the Woodruff Scholarship at Emory in 2015 was a dream come true. After completing three years of her medical school training, she took a leave of absence to pursue a masters in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2018-2019. The break was approved by the Emory School of Medicine, which supported her goal of becoming a physician-policymaker.

She returned to Emory for the 2019-2020 academic year to complete medical school.

“I cannot even describe how my training at Emory, in Atlanta, at Grady, has framed my thinking on health policy systems change,” she says. “All I can say is that I’m excited for the future of medicine and health care systems transformation in this country. I’m optimistic that we will see the changes that we need with time and with the support of physician-advocates.”

Her most memorable moment at Emory came through serving on the board of Health Students Taking Action Together. During her second year, she and 30 other medical students organized a rally on the steps of Grady Memorial Hospital to advocate for Medicaid expansion in Georgia. More than 120 students, physicians, community members and politicians participated.

“It was such an amazing moment of solidarity on the steps of a historic hospital,” she says. “I came to Emory because of Grady, and my experiences at Grady motivated my passion for health care justice and health equity. I’m so excited for the next journey, but I know that in my heart I’ll always be #Gradymade.”  

“Akshaya came to Emory with previous experience in public policy – in Chicago, Washington D.C., and in Asia working for the U.S. Department of State – and found many social problems in Atlanta which she has worked to help solve,” says Ira K. Schwartz, associate dean of medical education and student affairs with the School of Medicine. “From ‘big picture’ community issues, to careful attention to her patients’ comfort and their complicated medical problems, Akshaya will likely become a superb clinician, advocate for the underserved and respected physician-leader. 

“We’ve been grateful for her service to our community in Atlanta, and we’re excited to see how she will shape the world.” 

Kannan’s next step is to further her training at the University of California San Francisco, where she matched for the obstetrics and gynecology program. “I matched at UCSF and I’m honestly still in shock,” she says. “It has been my dream program for as long as I can remember. I cannot wait to join their community of women’s health policy leaders.”