Dr. Elisa Choi makes difference as doctor and community advocate

Former U.S. assistant secretary for health Howard Koh spoke at the Mass. Asian American Commission (AAC) health summit on Sept. 10, 2015, at the Boston Foundation. (Left to right) AAC chairperson Kajal Chattopadhyay, AAC vice chairperson Elisa Choi, Koh, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell executive director Sovanna Pouv. (Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.)

Dr. Elisa Choi serves patients as a doctor, and the community as the Chairperson of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission (AAC).

Dr. Choi is an internist and infectious disease physician in clinical practice and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She studied life sciences and English in college, and chose medicine as her career path to make the most impact.

“I love what I do,” Dr. Choi said. “For a physician to heal and take care of the patient, they have to be able to see where the patient is coming from and empathize with the patient.”

The AAC is dedicated to advocacy on behalf of Asian Americans throughout Massachusetts. It was formed in 2006, as Asian Americans constitute the fastest growing ethnic group in the Commonwealth and in the United States. Dr. Choi has served as a Commissioner since 2013 and became Chairperson in 2015, also serving as the Chair of the AAC’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“We are fully staffed at 21 commissioners, and currently have the most diverse geographic and ethnic representation in the AAC’s history,” Dr. Choi said. “It’s a huge win for the AAC, because we can only be as good as our membership.”

The Commission’s members were largely Chinese and East Asian in the past, but now include representatives from the Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian/Khmer, Nepalese, Filippino, Korean, Chinese, and South Asian Indian communities. Commissioners reside not just in Boston and its suburbs, but also in Quincy, Braintree, Lowell, and western Massachusetts. Interested candidates can apply to be Commissioner, and are selected by seven appointing authorities in state government: the Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Senate President, House Speaker, and Attorney General.

“If I can instill a sense of the importance of becoming involved, becoming civically engaged, and giving voice to issues in our Asian American community, I would be happy to view that as a major accomplishment,” Dr. Choi said. “What I’m recognizing is you do not have to run for office to be engaged in the community. Public service for and on behalf of our community can take many shapes, and my service as a Commissioner is one way to become involved.”

As the child of South Korean immigrants, Dr. Choi was thrilled to recently learn that she will be the first female Asian American Governor-Elect of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Physicians, the largest physician specialty society in the world. Dr. Choi will train this year and start her four-year term in 2018.

“I’m excited to take on this role and bring to light issues of health disparities and health policy at a national advocacy level,” Dr. Choi said. “It is unacceptable that in 2017, there are still medical studies without Asian American data. If there’s no data, there’s no funding and no ability to address disparities.”

Dr. Choi’s application to the AAC discussed health disparities for Asian Americans. Cultural taboos and stigma relating to how mental health conditions are perceived in the Asian American community affect individuals struggling with depression, problem gambling, and other addictions. A scarcity of linguistically appropriate health care access for limited English proficiency individuals of the Asian American community can result in lower enrollment in health insurance and infrequent access to health care. This has contributed to some health disparities affecting the Asian American community, such as lower rates of preventive screening for breast, cervical, and colon cancers, as compared to other ethnic groups.

“Asian American rates of screening for certain preventable cancers [breast, cervical, colon] are the lowest among all ethnic groups,” Dr. Choi said. “That’s just tragic.”

Diabetes disproportionately affects the Asian American community at lower body weight. The Commission is working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Asian American Legislative Caucus to help implement “Screen at 23” in the Commonwealth. Screen at 23 is a nationwide initiative to raise awareness about the importance of screening Asian Americans for diabetes at a lower body mass index (BMI) of 23.

The Asian American community has the highest proportion of residents born overseas as compared to all other ethnicities, with immigrants comprising two-thirds of US residents identifying as Asian American. “Approximately one out of three Asian Americans in the United States has limited English proficiency,” Dr. Choi said.

“If you have access to an opportunity to change things for the better, or even a comfort level in the English language that others do not, speak for those in the community who may not be able to speak for themselves,” Dr. Choi said.

For more information about the AAC, visit www.aacommission.org.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions  represented are exclusively those of Dr. Choi and do not necessarily represent any formal position or agenda of the AAC or any other organization with which Dr. Choi is affiliated.

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England

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