New Alabama Medical Association Chief Wants Voice for “Less Visible”
When Dr. Aruna Arora became president of the Alabama State Medical Association earlier this year, she made no bones about it as she delivered her acceptance speech to a large crowd of Alabama doctors. . She chose phrases she rarely hears from medical leaders:
Arora is only the fourth woman to serve as President of the Medical Association out of more than 150 past presidents, and the first Asian American. The Alabama Medical Association is the central governing body for physicians in the state and wields lobbying power in the state capital.
But the most powerful and visible group of doctors in the state has not always been the voice of the state’s least visible patients. Arora spoke of those who slip through the cracks of the health care system, including people of color and rural patients.
âIt is difficult to help those we cannot see,â she told the crowd, âand it is difficult to help those we cannot understand because of our own implicit biases and our inaccurate cultural skills.
âOur organization has changed over the past few years. As the practice of medicine has changed over the past decade, so too must this organization. “
Arora is a 46-year-old neurologist in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, where she is the co-director of the ALS clinic at Crestwood Medical Center with her husband, also a neurologist. She is a second generation doctor – her father is a pediatrician – and mother of two children.
âHealth equity is a great passion for me,â she told Reckon. âI feel like our state has so much to consider historically. We have so many different groups in our state, whether it’s someone who is disabled, or who identifies as LGBTQ, or who lives in a rural area – people who feel like they’re not the dominant voice. .
âThe mainstream has enough supporters. We have to make sure that someone is there to help everyone get to where they need to be. “
Arora was born in India to parents who grew up in small farming communities. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 6 months old and her father attended Boston medical school. The family moved until Arora was 10 and settled in Huntsville, where her father opened his pediatric practice.
She remembers as a child walking the mall with her parents and seeing her father’s patients and their families approach him, excited to say hello or express gratitude. Watching these interactions, she said, has shown her how vital it is for a doctor to make personal connections with his patients.
As doctors at the Medical Association struggle to reach communities hesitant about Alabama’s vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arora said it was even clearer just how necessary these personal connections were. This is how doctors can break down barriers between patients and the treatments – or vaccines – they need.
âThere are all these myths out there and so many patients who are very suspicious,â she said. âIt’s our role to meet everyone where they are, without judgment. “
Nearly 90 years ago, the medical association gifted Alabama with a statue of 19eJ. Marion Sims, Montgomery’s physician of the century, who became the âfather of modern gynecologyâ. But in recent years, a more complete story has emerged: Sims perfected his techniques by experimenting on black female slaves, without their consent and often without anesthesia.
The Sim statue still stands on the grounds of the state capital. State law prevents its withdrawal.
But this year, under Arora’s leadership, the Medical Association provided financial support for a new 15-foot monument to the “Gynecology mothers, Created by artist and Montgomery activist Michelle Browder. The sculpture honors three enslaved black women who underwent Sims’ experimental surgeries and whose names were Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.
Arora said the decision to support Browder’s work was an easy one.
âShe’s doing amazing things with historical calculus and I think it was a great way to support this process,â she said.
And that was a tangible example of what happens when there is more equitable representation in the rooms where decisions are made.
âMy role in the Medical Association, for me, starts in the boardroom, sharing different perspectives and being the person who can work with everyone for the greater good,â she said. . âI feel like a unifier. This is the set of skills that I have for working with different people, because each group has a strength.
At a recent board meeting, she said, she had been “nervous” to share a different perspective on an issue. But then she saw board members from different backgrounds and with divergent opinions move towards consensus.
âThere were members who I never thought would agree on some issues that I found important to shed light on this year,â said Arora. “I was so taken by this that I was moved to tears for the first time in a meeting room.”
Alabamien, through and through
Even as she spoke about tackling historic health inequalities during her address to the Medical Association, Arora also spoke to the crowd about her love for her home country: âI’m an Alabamian from end to end, proud to be of this state and of this state. “
But pride, she told Reckon, shouldn’t mean fierce defense of the status quo. Alabama, like much of the South, has long ranked low in many health measures, including rates of chronic diseases like heart disease and obesity.
“This is what makes people want to be leaders, makes people want to stand up and do something when they feel like there has been no change,” he said. she declared. âYou have to feel empowered, like ‘this is my home and we can do better.’ Our state relies on all of our leaders to move us forward.