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Dr. Shereef Elnahal of University Hospital: “The ability to travel without fear again is important”

The availability of three excellent vaccines (and perhaps a fourth on the way) should give hope to everyone. These are vaccines that are 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, which is most important metric from a public health standpoint. These vaccines are safe and have potential, brief side effects that are tolerable, lasting for […]

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The availability of three excellent vaccines (and perhaps a fourth on the way) should give hope to everyone. These are vaccines that are 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, which is most important metric from a public health standpoint. These vaccines are safe and have potential, brief side effects that are tolerable, lasting for several days at most. Many experience minor effects and, in rare instances, allergic reactions. The hope for getting back to normal really depends on the timeline and numbers of people receiving the vaccine.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shereef Elnahal.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal is President and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey’s largest safety net hospital with over 500 licensed beds and 738.2 million dollars in patient service revenue. The hospital serves as the main academic medical center for Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, both in Newark. Previously, Dr. Elnahal served as New Jersey’s 21st Commissioner of Health. He joined the Department of Health (DOH) in January 2018 and quickly established a new vision for the Department with specific goals: Eradicating the opioid epidemic; decreasing maternal mortality and improving access to women’s health care; reducing disparities in public health outcomes, increasing access to health coverage and mental health care; expanding the medicinal marijuana program; and expanding telehealth and interoperability.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My interest in medicine began when I was 12-years old. I have Type 1 diabetes, and I was a relatively uncontrolled diabetic as an adolescent. Around that time, I was treated by a nurse practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania who made a big impact on my life. She had great bedside manner and was very open to my concerns. She connected with me, helping me get better and gain more understanding of my condition through a combination of compassion and expertise. Being a patient at that time sparked my interest in the health field as a career path.

It was in college, when I was studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, that I became interested in public service. I was volunteering at a Federally Qualified Health Center that provided classes and counseling sessions for parents whose children were newly diagnosed with diabetes, and who did not have health insurance. I realized that going into the public service side of medicine would allow me to help people who are vulnerable.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a transformative book for me — both as a Muslim and as someone who was interested in public service. I find this book meaningful personally and professionally. I was drawn to the narrative of when Malcolm X was younger and how he didn’t really find his sense of identity and purpose until later in life. It was fascinating to me.

The way he discovered his faith influenced my own self-discovery and reconciliation with the faith that I was raised with: Islam. It was inspiring to read how his faith proved comforting, especially when he was in very adverse situations. I find myself remembering the themes in his life and his stories, especially as I try to grapple with issues in the vulnerable communities that I have served throughout my career.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. The availability of three excellent vaccines (and perhaps a fourth on the way) should give hope to everyone. These are vaccines that are 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, which is most important metric from a public health standpoint. These vaccines are safe and have potential, brief side effects that are tolerable, lasting for several days at most. Many experience minor effects and, in rare instances, allergic reactions. The hope for getting back to normal really depends on the timeline and numbers of people receiving the vaccine.
  2. The way that we live during this pandemic is not going to be permanent. It is in everyone’s interest to get back to a sense of normalcy. The timeline for getting back to a “new normal” is getting closer and closer. Each day we get closer to herd immunity, and there is a clear intention to get life to a level of normality which we were used to prior to March 2020. The CDC is allowing people to do more and more things once they are vaccinated. They are considering the things that matter most to people, like visiting your children and grandchildren, when setting criteria for vaccine eligibility. Gathering limits for vaccinated people are increasing to a reasonable degree. It is important for our elected and community leaders, at all levels, to encourage the vaccination of their communities.
  3. In-person education in schools will resume soon, if it has not done so already. The Biden Administration has put in billions of dollars for serial testing to happen in schools to make everyone safer and more comfortable in occupying classrooms. In many states, teachers are now getting vaccinated.
  4. The ability to travel without fear again is important. We are getting closer to more people feeling comfortable about going out of town and using more convenient transportation options, which is so important for many reasons.
  5. Finally, the ability for people to return to worksites has many feeling optimistic. Some jobs may remain remote, but many have been missing the interaction and socializing that goes along with working with people, in-person.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

I am not an expert on this, but I can speak from my perspective as a physician and former public health official.

The ability to connect is important. We know that loneliness has become a significant problem — especially with the elderly — as the pandemic has continued. Loneliness was a public health problem among senior citizens before the pandemic, and now we are seeing it in much younger demographics. It is important to stay connected in the ways we can — virtual interactions or by phone.

If you know a person is suffering from depression or mental health, it is important to check in. If you think things are bad, access to mental health services is easy for those needing mental health and behavioral health therapy. Ultimately, it is okay not to be okay. If you know someone who is experiencing feelings of depression and anxiety, consider mental health care and treatment support.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

If you have thoughts of hurting or killing yourself there are crisis lines, help hotlines and peer support lines in many states and communities across America. If all else fails, call ‘911.’ Do not be shy about getting care.

If you are leery of reaching out yourself, mention it to a primary care doctor or to a loved one to start the journey towards mental health. Many may ultimately choose to see a psychiatrist, a psychologist or behavioral health therapist for help.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

In public health, you are constantly in a position of learning. Fifteen months ago, we had never heard of COVID, but it soon became the most urgent public health concern of many of our lifetimes. Everyone from the most distinguished public health experts to the general public found themselves being students. Studying a virus that we knew very little about also taught us much about respiratory virus pandemics as a general matter. We were forced to update healthcare best practices on treatments, find new sources for personal protective equipment (PPE), and, eventually, the efficacy of vaccines.

Malcolm X’s words remind me that being a public health leader means embracing a sense of continuous, lifelong learning, as well as humility when facing a crisis.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we are already in the middle of the next movement, the next frontier in civil rights in this country: achieving racial justice in healthcare. The national, racial reckoning we are seeing makes this ripe and important to pursue now. Martin Luther King said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Racial injustice pervades healthcare, whether it’s the systemic factors that have left people of color in poverty in America, and all of the health morbidities that come with poverty, or the implicit bias that causes clinicians to replace evidence with prejudiced assumptions about the person they are treating. The fact that Black women consistently tell us that their symptoms are taken less seriously in maternity care, critical care, or really any type of care, is just one example of this.

Black maternal mortality is still multiples higher than the general population, in large part because of implicit bias. When we ask people of color to suspend their distrust of the medical establishment during the pandemic and accept the vaccine, we have to follow that with a promise that comparable will, funding, and support will exist to finally address public health issues that have affected their communities for generations. I intend to be part of this movement and use every bit of influence that I do have advance the agenda of racial justice in health care in the years to come.

What is the best way for our readers to follow you online?

@ShereefElnahal

@UnivHospNewark

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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