United Health Foundation Diverse Scholar Shares His Story

June 12, 2017

From a young age, Oswaldo “Oz” Hasbún Avalos knew he wanted to care for others. Growing up in El Salvador he watched his parents – both dentists – don their white coats every morning to care for patients in the first floor of their family home and witnessed the transformative power of medicine firsthand.  When he was 10 years old, Oz immigrated to the United States with his family and after attending high school in California, he started his freshman year at Stanford as a biology/pre-med major.

Oz was awarded a scholarship through United Health Foundation’s Diverse Scholars Initiative and, after attending the 2017 Diverse Scholars Forum in Washington, D.C., this month, is about to begin his fourth year of medical school at Columbia University. He plans on applying into Emergency Medicine for residency.

For the past year, however, Oz wasn’t at Columbia like the rest of his peers. He was interning with UnitedHealth Group’s OptumCare, learning firsthand how to make the health system work better for all. Following is more about Oz and his journey.

Q: Why did you decide to enter the field of medicine?

A: The strongest spark for my interest in medicine came from my dad. As a dentist in El Salvador specializing in dental prostheses, he often worked in the dental lab after seeing patients. Unfortunately, as a result of an accident while working with acrylic, he lost his vision for about four years. It was a trying time for him and our family, but he ultimately received corneal transplants that partially restored his vision. This showed me how transformative medicine can be, both for the patient and their entire family and community.

Q: What influenced your decision to take a gap year and intern at Optum?

A: I am passionate about improving access to care and care delivery for underserved populations.  On the clinical side of medicine, there is no real opportunity to address these types of issues. The focus is not on the health care system; it’s on treatment. In school they don’t teach you about Medicare and Medicaid or insurances, so it was important for me to learn the business side of health care and I felt it would be best to learn it directly from an industry leader, like Optum. It’s becoming increasingly harder to practice medicine without this knowledge and it’s certainly impossible to change the system without understanding drivers of the industry. The opportunity to work on implementation of value-based care across OptumCare has been an incredibly rewarding learning experience.

Q: Your passion for improving access to care and helping make the health system work better is perfectly exemplified through your service project for National Medical Fellowships. Tell us more about that.

A: While the Joint Commission does have a mandate for health facilities to offer language services for non-English-speaking patients, it’s hard to regulate and implement these services, especially at smaller community health centers where many patients with limited English seek care. I identified the need for interpreter services for the largest non-English speaking group of patients at a clinic in New York City. After putting together a rigorous interpreter training program and recruiting students, I ran the course and implemented it at local clinics. The program is now in its third year, currently being run by Columbia Medical’s global health division. They’re training about 10 to 15 students a year to be interpreters at local clinics.

Q: Do you think this project, and your experience, speaks to the importance of providing culturally competent care?

A: People don’t realize how important clear communication is in a medical encounter. Being able to understand every word, every nuance, is vital to care. There’s so much more that goes into proper medical interpretation than just speaking two languages. People who have been medical interpreters for years can still make critical mistakes if they don’t receive proper training. If there’s a mistake in the interpretation, it could be months before anyone becomes aware of it. For example, care providers may not know that the patient misunderstood their condition or treatment plan, or has not been taking their medication properly. There’s a real danger if communication is facilitated by someone who isn’t trained.

Q: Tell us more about your internship and experience at OptumCare.

A: At OptumCare, I am a business intern and a medical consultant. My day-to-day schedule changes weekly, but I’ve been working on a number of large projects involving thought leadership, recruitment, and physician development through the Office of Provider Advancement.

I didn’t want to take a year off just to have time off – I really wanted to learn. It’s definitely been worth it.  If a person is interested in medicine beyond clinical practice and making changes in care delivery, learning about the business side of health care is vital and I highly recommend it.

Learn more about the Diverse Scholars Initiative.