The more Shruti Iyer learns, the more she understands that social justice and health equity go hand-in-hand. As a part of Kaiser Permanente’s Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity, she is committed to embedding principles of equity within the company’s workplace, care delivery systems, and community health efforts.

She says, “With steady demographic and geographic transformation and increasing urgency of health disparities and social needs, this is yet another time in our country’s history to be the change we want to see.”

Being the change is something that that has been part of Shruti’s mindset long before knew she wanted to be a nurse. “As a child I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she says, “As the child of an internist and chemical engineer, I grew up in a household heavily influenced by the STEM fields, and wanted to channel that energy towards veterinary sciences. No matter which field I chose, I wanted to make a positive difference among vulnerable populations.”

It was Shruti’s own back and neck pain in middle and high schools that drove her toward health care, however—and resulted in her being featured as a 14-year-old public health activist in the American Journal of Public Health for her research findings on the correlation between back pain and backpacks. The feature notes:

“Shruti turned her investigation into a science fair project and subsequently expanded the study, making it quantitative and international. She then went beyond science fairs, presenting her findings at professional society meetings and in publications, and she initiated a wide-ranging public health campaign. All this in less than 5 years: Shruti entered 10th grade in the fall of 2000.”[i]

Shruti Iyer at 14 years old.Shruti Iyer at 14 years old.Shruti’s study started in her Houston high school but expanded to schoolchildren in Chennai, India, where she spent her summers. The final recommendation: students should carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight on their backs and that they should carry their backpacks properly. Her findings were published in Ergonomics, BackTalk, and the Journal of School Health, and she presented at the American Statistical Association meeting and the International Ergonomics Association and Human Factors and Engineering Society meeting. (In fact, India just passed a ruling that sets limits on the weight schoolchildren can carry).

“That public health exposure was pivotal for me,” Shruti says, “and it informed my interest in the Nursing and Health Care Management dual degree program at Penn. It was an honor to be trained at top ranking schools of nursing and business. As dual degree students, we directly cared for patients with limited access to healthcare at a micro level, while observing market forces that affected them at a macro level. The program offered me fluency to speak two very unique languages, to build bridges across disciplines, and to serve diverse audiences.”

“The community health experiences I had at Penn changed the way I saw my own future,” she continues. “We would drive out to West and South Philly communities through a home health agency to serve patients in their own spaces. I realized here that my clinical training and scope of practice would only allow me to go so far. Many of these patients needed food security, access to transportation, a social network, and a safety net to promote total health. It was my first exposure to the social determinants of health, health disparities, and the need for systems-based solutions that impact upstream influences on health.”

But one clinical experience in particular solidified her thinking that health equity and social justice work were her ultimate career goals:

“While working on the cardiac step-down unit at HUP, I cared for a man who was homeless—he had heart failure and was labeled a ‘frequent flyer.’ He’d come in, receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in services, and be discharged “to the street,” over and over again. The system spent so many downstream resources on this man but could not create an upstream solution to sustainable support and stable housing. It was at this moment I started thinking beyond treating one patient at a time and began focusing on creating healthy societies. As nurses, we are important change agents in facilitating that kind of change.”

Since graduating from Penn Nursing and The Wharton School, Shruti has earned a Masters in Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), and is currently pursuing a DrPH in Health Equity & Social Justice from JHSPH on a part-time basis while working for Kaiser Permanente. “I will be beginning my doctoral dissertation shortly,” she says. “I plan to investigate race and ethnic differences in factors known to exacerbate hypertension, with the hope to use results to influence equitable care programs at Kaiser Permanente.”

“After my DrPH,” she continues, “I will be committed to four major goals: first, denaturalizing health disparities and addressing them in a socially conscious and culturally humble way; promoting paradigm shifts through multi-sectoral collective impact models that address transportation, housing, food, livable wages, etc. as factors for health; third, emphasizing preventative measures for chronic disease, moving the dial from volume to value in healthcare service delivery, and maintaining the triple aim of quality, lower cost, and population health; and fourth, developing a new generation of educated, empowered, and accountable communities for health. I have the appetite and passion to apply research in real time and tackle issues with rigor and soul. I am eager to meld evidence, activism, and community values in addressing pervasive domestic health challenges of our day. In short, I hope to be a servant leader, creating equitable pathways for those who deserve a life of health.”

Random fact about Shruti: She is a classically trained violinist and dancer.

 

[i]  Guyer, R. L., PhD. (2001). Backpack = back pain. American Journal of Public Health, 91(1), 16-19. doi:10.2105/ajph.91.1.16