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Q&A: Medical students present initiatives at CGI U

Posted by on Monday, March 20, 2023 in Second Year, Student Activities, Student Initiatives .

MD students Lena Khanolkar, Sunaya Krishnapura, and Chirag Ram push for sustainability in health care and organ donation education

Black and white collage of three medical students, a woman in front of a medical school seal, a man in a tie, and a woman with a stethoscope in front of water
L to R: Sunaya Krishnapura, Chirag Ram, and Lena Khanolkar

By: Lexie Little

Vanderbilt University hosted the 2023 Clinton Global Initiative University from March 3 to March 5, bringing together students from across the globe to discuss and address some of the world’s most pressing issues. Founded by President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative draws on leader experiences to solve challenges related to climate change, health equity, and inclusive economic recovery and growth.

Students applied and were selected based on proposed commitment to action projects. CGI U provides access to networking opportunities, mentorship, and funding streams to support projects.

Second-year MD students Lena Khanolkar and Sunaya Krishnapura presented their project committed to improving sustainability efforts at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Classmate Chirag Ram shared his initiative that aims to educate younger individuals about organ donation. They now reflect on their experiences:

Q: What prompted you to apply to CGI U? Can you describe the project/initiative you proposed?

Khanolkar: Our commitment to action is to develop a comprehensive model for health care sustainability that can be implemented in hospitals to address the health care sector’s role in perpetuating the climate crisis. Sunaya and I worked with a team of other students through the Social Mission Committee (SMC) to complete VUSM’s first Planetary Health Report Card during our M1 year. The Planetary Health Report Card is a nationwide initiative focused on analyzing the efforts of universities, medical schools, and medical centers in addressing the climate crisis. Through this analysis, we recognized that while Vanderbilt University has made tremendous efforts in decreasing campus waste, most of these initiatives have not been replicated in the medical center.

An article published by the American Medical Association (AMA) last fall states that the U.S. health care industry is the second largest producer of landfill waste in the world. Climate change has severe consequences with regard to the health of marginalized communities, perpetuating infectious disease, pulmonary conditions, etc. Given the role of the health care sector in this crisis, it is imperative that leaders in health care begin to develop and implement systems geared towards enhancing environmental sustainability.

Our initiative focuses on increasing sustainability through a three-pronged approach: decreasing OR waste, food waste, and general hospital waste. We applied to CGI U because of the network that it would provide us and the skills we would gain regarding how to become an effective advocate for our patients.

Ram: Organ donation education is severely lacking, and it shows when we see the amount of misinformation circulating everywhere and people’s hesitancy to register as organ donors. My initiative aims to educate younger individuals, those who are around the age of getting their driver’s licenses, so that they can make an informed decision when asked to be an organ donor when getting their license.

CGI U provided an opportunity to interface with other changemakers, to hear from prominent speakers who have succeeded in creating social change, and to connect with mentors who have done work like this before so that I, too, can succeed and educate as many people in the country to help save the lives of so many people on the transplant waitlist.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the CGI U programming?

Khanolkar and Krishnapura: It was inspiring to hear from other changemakers who have been successful in their own initiatives, as it demonstrated the power that we as students have to effect change in our respective communities.

Ram: It was an amazing experience meeting so many peers working to change so many broken systems across the world so that people like us do not have to face the same barriers we did in the future.

Q: How does this experience inform the way(s) you will approach your careers in medicine?

Khanolkar and Krishnapura: The deleterious effects of climate change are only becoming more obvious with each passing year. As future physicians, we will be caring for marginalized communities and populations most at risk due to the impact of the climate crisis. Appropriately caring for these communities requires not only traditional one-on-one care but also a top-down approach to address systems level pitfalls and areas of improvement. We hope that this experience will provide us with the skillset and foundation on how to make these system-level changes along with the skills to care for patient populations impacted by the climate crisis.

Ram: This experience highlighted the power one person has to make a difference. In my career in medicine, it further emphasized how each patient interaction is its own, unique encounter and we must individualize the way we provide care.

Q: How do you plan to follow through on your proposed project?

Khanolkar and Krishnapura: In drafting our commitment to action, we explored models for increasing sustainability at other medical centers to determine the feasibility of changes we could implement at VUMC. Through CGI U, we have begun reaching out to contacts at other medical centers and networking with leaders in sustainability and health care. We hope to take advantage of their expertise as well as the vast mentorship system available through CGI U to translate our ideas into action. Additionally, to tackle food waste, we are also hoping to connect with local halfway houses and shelters to reallocate unused food to those facing food insecurity.

Ram: We started an Organ Donation Awareness Club at VUSM, where we are working to educate Tennesseans about organ donation, tackle the myths circulating about organ donation, and speak to the challenging historical barriers that exist between marginalized communities and the health care system.

Q: Anything else you would like to share about your experience or initiative?

Khanolkar and Krishnapura: If you are a member of the VU or VUMC community and are interested in helping us with our initiative, we would love your support! The more individuals interested in sustainable health care, the more profound change we can make.

Ram: Organ Donation Awareness Club is open to everyone at Vanderbilt, not just the School of Medicine, and we would love to have you as we tackle this huge endeavor.

Find more from CGI U.