As an emergency medicine physician, Otugo believes systemic racism is the number one factor for differential health outcomes, including Black maternal health and chronic diseases. She wants to change that.

Julie Galante
May 18, 2021

Onyeka Otugo MPA 2021 had worked late the night before in the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She sounded tired, but even still, she seemed energized. There’s important work to do.

As an emergency medicine attending physician and health policy fellow at the Brigham, Otugo sees practice and policy as intimately tied. She’s passionate about medicine, health policy, racial health disparities, and access to care issues. There are reasons for that.

“My medical experience has had lots of ups and downs, mostly because I’m a Black woman and experienced a lot of racism,” she says, adding that she has continuously been overlooked because people thought she “did not look like a doctor.”

Otugo grew up with her parents—both from Nigeria—and two siblings in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a majority-minority community bordering the eastern edge of Washington, D.C. Her drive to go into medicine started early—she lost family members because they had inadequate access to health care—and she went to a science and tech magnet high school that, she says, “is pretty much why I’m where I am today.” 

Otugo went to University of Maryland, College Park, the nearby state college, where she studied biology and studio art. It’s been a while since she did any art, but her creative background comes out in other ways, particularly in medicine. 

“Being able to think outside of the box if things don’t go as expected is an art in itself,” she says.

Onyeka Otugo standing in front of tress and brick building in the HKS courtyard.

 

Otugo worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after college as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow and was bitten by the policy bug after seeing both ends of the approval process for a drug that was rushed to market. She started medical school a year later at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, where she earned her MD and Master of Public Health. 

It’s also where she saw how racism was ingrained in medicine. She remembered one discussion about breast cancer and how rates were higher among white women, but Black women were more likely to die from the disease. Her classmates discussed whether Black women had poor health outcomes because they were not as educated or didn’t have as much money. During her clinical rotations, Otugo also noticed the differential treatment experienced by medical students of color.

But her commitment to medicine proved unwavering. She saw a combination of emergency medicine and policymaking as the way to help underserved populations who tend to be uninsured, lack access to health care, or don’t have primary care physicians.  

“Being a doctor is one aspect of being able to make change,” she says, “but for things to actually happen you have to be at the end of where people are making laws.” 

Otugo did her medical residency at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, where she cared for the underserved community at the peak of the opioid epidemic. 

“It was overwhelming at times,” she says. “But at the same time, you saw there was a lot of room for change and growth and being able to impact so many people’s lives.” 

“There’s a beauty to respectfully finding your voice. Speaking up for people who haven’t been heard was my main reason for coming to HKS.”

Onyeka Otugo MPA 2021

At the end of her residency, Otugo took on a Health Policy Research and Translation Fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to do research and practice emergency medicine—all while pursuing a Master in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School to gain the administrative and public policy skills she needed. When she started at the Brigham, there was only one other Black woman in the emergency department. Familiar challenges persisted.

“I remember one of my first shifts—the day before my MPA orientation actually—I was walking out of a patient’s room and overheard someone say, ‘It doesn’t help to have a Black girl as your doctor.’ And in my mind, I was saying, ‘Why am I not used to this? Why do I have to be used to something like this?’” 

She came to Harvard Kennedy School looking for answers. 

“It’s very important to amplify lived experiences of marginalized communities. …It was coming to a point where people were becoming accustomed to the status quo. Unfortunately—or fortunately—you end up taking a more forward approach,” she says. “There’s a beauty to respectfully finding your voice. Speaking up for people who haven’t been heard was my main reason for coming to HKS.”

As an Adrian Cheng Fellow at the HKS Social Innovation + Change Initiative (SICI), Otugo created the mentorship program Lift and Elevate to support junior Black women physicians interested in leadership roles in medicine and help them build up their skills in areas like negotiation and applying for research grants. 

“Two percent of physicians are Black women,” Otugo says. “You’re seeing poor health outcomes for Black women—breast cancer, pregnancy-related complications. People’s approach to tackling this is to increase diversity into the medicine pipeline, but turnover in medicine is about eight years. What are we doing to support those who are currently in the system and to continue to diversify leadership?” In comes Lift and Elevate. Applications to the program open later this month. 

Being a John F. Kennedy Fellowship recipient made things a little easier for Otugo—she didn’t need to add more loans to her existing ones from medical school—so she could instead focus on getting the most out of her HKS experience. She concentrated in social and urban policy and took classes that informed her thinking. One of her favorites was Visiting Associate Professor of Public Policy Megan Ming Francis’ course on philanthropy and social movements. 

“I didn’t know how pervasive philanthropy was, the organizations involved and hospitals’ relationships with those, and how it fueled funding for certain research,” Otugo says. 

Between her ER shifts and pursuing her MPA degree, Otugo also co-chaired the Black Policy Conference—an HKS student-led, policy-driven forum to address issues affecting Black communities around the world, especially in the United States—earlier this spring with Ancito Etienne MPP 2021

Life will continue to charge ahead for Otugo after graduating in May. She’ll launch Lift and Elevate and convene the first cohort in September. And she will continue practicing emergency medicine at the Brigham, where she will also be on faculty working on equity issues. 

“It’s forward-facing research that’s going to create actionable policy, not just research for the sake of research,” she explains. The hope is that this policy will be applied at the state and eventually national level.

Practice and policy intimately tied. Yes, there’s important work to do.

Portrait by Natalie Montaner