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Practicing with a public health perspective

By Daniel P. Smith

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Angelika Kwak saw her parents’ struggles to navigate the health care system firsthand. Language barriers, insurance issues, and limited health literacy often hindered their ability to secure proper care.

Eager to drive improved health care outcomes and help dismantle health-stifling impediments, Kwak enrolled in the MD/Master of Public Health (MPH) dual-degree program at Loyola University Chicago in 2019.

A joint effort between Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health and the University’s Stritch School of Medicine, the five-year MD/MPH program trains physicians to become leaders in medicine and public health, preparing them to tend to individual patient needs while simultaneously examining health on the system and community levels.

“I loved the idea of medicine and having one-on-one direct patient relationships, but I was also drawn to the potential of making changes on a structural level,” says Kwak, who earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from UIC. “In learning about communities and policies as well as medicine, I saw a way to broaden the difference I could make in this world.”

Seeing – and seizing – the possibilities

Once at Loyola, Kwak embraced her MPH studies with purpose and an inquisitive spirit, capitalizing on various learning opportunities to advance her knowledge and skill set.

Kwak asked questions, formed relationships, and participated in research efforts with key Parkinson School mentors like Amy Luke, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Ruth Kafensztok, director of the MPH program. She led health workshops with Peer Health Exchange to boost health literacy among high school students. She also served as a Polish language interpreter with CommunityHealth to drive improved patient understanding and outcomes.

Along the way, the Chicago native earned induction into the Gold Humanism Honor Society, a community of medical students and physicians recognized for their compassionate care; captured a spot in the American Medical Association (AMA) Foundation’s Leadership Development Institute; and garnered the AMA Physicians of Tomorrow Scholarship as well as the Provident Health Scholarship from Cook County Health.

“Angelika is full of energy, yet gentle and humble,” Kafensztok says. “She is a very bright individual with a tremendous drive to succeed, which translated into her taking advantage of every experience she felt could be meaningful to her development as a community-engaged health professional.”

Kwak, for instance, worked as the program coordinator for the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s FRESH Truck, which delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to those meeting food insecurity criteria at 19 different Chicago area locations.

“I not only learned about food insecurity and its impact on health, but it was an opportunity to generate human connections and learn more about individuals and their personal struggles,” Kwak says.

Kafensztok calls that outcome – learning to understand health at both the individual and population levels – central to the mission of the MD/MPH program, which pushes future clinicians to broaden the lens through which they examine individual patient care.

“With the MD side of the program, they’re going to get strong training as a clinical provider,” Kafensztok says. “On the MPH side, students zoom out from a focus on patient care to seeing health from a population perspective with particular emphasis on the social determinants of health. As a result, they’re better positioned to understand structural barriers leading to health disparities, advocate for system-level changes that address such inequities, and develop and evaluate interventions capable of benefiting communities as well as individuals.”

Into the future

Now in her fourth year of medical school, Kwak is preparing to finish medical school in May and tackle her residency immediately thereafter. Long term, she hopes to specialize in family medicine with a focus on pediatric care. She also hopes to get involved in medical education and policy work.

Kwak acknowledges being a stronger advocate for both individual patients and the larger community will be a balancing act, yet she feels prepared to thrive in both areas thanks to the MD/MPH program. She considers herself a more “confident, experienced, and compassionate” individual now and credits her MPH studies, in particular, for introducing her to invested mentors, highlighting the importance of health policy and advocacy, and exposing her to different possibilities to have a greater impact in health care beyond the doctor’s office.

“The different classes and practicums I had in the MPH program showed me what is possible, and I see there are so many things we can do together to create positive change,” she says. “There’s a roadmap I have now to gaining a wider perspective on what communities need and how I can make a bigger impact on quality of health.”