Finding my Niche: Health Policy

By: Daniella Pena

My interest in science came at a young age when I discovered a show called Mystery Diagnosis in the third grade. Each episode featured a patient that had unfortunately developed an extremely rare condition, so rare that most doctors couldn’t accurately diagnose it. Each attempt to do so resulted in the disease worsening and the patient’s life at an increased risk. This progressed to the point where death was imminent, until yet another doctor took a look at the case and realized that what the patient had was a disease typically only seen once or twice in the country per year. I was captivated by this, but also deeply saddened by all the suffering that was endured before a life saving treatment was delivered. It was at that point I decided to keep a journal documenting each case, I wrote everything from symptoms, incorrect suspected illnesses, the actual “mystery diagnosis,” treatment options, and survival rates. My thought process was to have this information handy in case a patient ever came to me in the future and I didn’t have an answer to their condition, I would consult my journal. 

However, never did I imagine the day where I myself would be similar to those patients, not in developing a rare illness, but in a disease severely impacting me. I was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia in 5th grade, in my case I experienced palpitations randomly and frequently. Some of these went over 220 beats per minute at times when I was simply sitting down, completely motionless. Not only was this exhausting, but also deeply terrifying because the treatment for my condition was a cardiac ablation. After undergoing this surgery my life changed drastically, whereas during the previous months I couldn’t be physically active in order to not risk accelerating my heart, afterwards I was free to continue being the kid I had always been. It was at this point that I decided I wanted to narrow my focus to the heart and the various diseases that can be experienced when this organ malfunctions. 

I was set on this goal from elementary until my first year of college, but my life plan changed my sophomore year due to a class I took called The U.S Healthcare System. This course taught us everything about how we operate the health system we have in place here, but through this we also learned about all the problems that are present within it. From Medicaid being unfairly withheld from individuals who should qualify if income guidelines were adjusted by geographic location rather than a universal limit, to doctors performing unnecessary tests and procedures to increase their wealth regardless of how this impacts their patient’s health. I learned that nearly every aspect of our system needs serious changes, and from that moment on I decided that I would like to be involved in policy to try and address these issues. 

My life has been spent identifying a need and aiming to fill this gap, but at this phase in my life I have recognized that while I could change people’s lives for the better as their doctor I would only impact those few individuals who are my patients. My career would one day come to and end and with that everything else would too, there would have been millions of patients I never reached. This is what inspires me the most about my newfound career goal, the fact that while it will be incredibly challenging to pass a policy such as health insurance for all, if I am able to do this everyone would benefit. The positive impact I hope to make will be unbounded by geographic location or time, and will continue to impact others long after I am gone.

Therefore while my niche is not exactly science anymore, had I not been interested in science to begin with I never would have ended up discovering what I truly feel is my passion. I took a course last semester in which I learned how to analyze policy effects using the programming software Stata. Using these skills, I worked on a project analyzing the insurance uptake effects of The Affordable Care Act’s Dependent Coverage Mandate. Now, I am both learning and using R to analyze cost-sharing for cardiac rehabilitation services across Medicare Advantage plans for my project this summer. I plan to continue building up these skills throughout my education as I analyze various policies and identify areas for improvement. With this knowledge and these skills I hope to be a part of the policy writing process one day, with my main focus centered on implementing universal health care, while addressing other issues both through and alongside this policy.

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