It's the stories that matter, says Shaitalya Vellanki, MD. Once, during medical school in New Orleans, she sat with a woman seeking care at a shelter. The woman had escaped a physically and verbally abusive household to be homeless by choice. What mattered, the woman said, was that being homeless didn’t always correlate with being an addict or a failure. Sometimes it was a matter of taking that first step toward a better life.
“So much of our patients’ medical data are simply their stories, their spoken word, from a certain snapshot of time,” explains Vellanki. “I connect to my patients more deeply when I listen to their stories and focus on creating conversation rather than questioning their health background and medical needs in isolation.”
Now a resident at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Vellanki is stacking stories — hers and others — to craft a career as a top-notch researcher and future cardiologist.
“I grew up in the rural town of Lutcher, Louisiana, where I first developed a sense of commitment to serving underserved communities,” she says. “It is where I watched my immigrant parents, both physicians, grow a successful primary care practice.”
From her childhood in St. James Parish to Dartmouth College and the Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Medicine, Vellanki has witnessed critical gaps in health care, especially for complex care that accompanies conditions such as heart failure and chronic kidney disease. COVID-19, she says, has also compounded access to care. She has, however, observed one potential solution.
“I have noticed the positive role that telehealth can play in reconnecting with patients and improving longitudinal health in the outpatient setting,” says Vellanki. “Using telehealth can increase more patient-physician interface opportunities, particularly by creating multidisciplinary care teams including several different specialists.”
With a new research grant, the Akman Innovation Scholarship Fund, under her belt (see p. 35), and after completing a residency fellowship in health policy and enrolling in the underserved medicine and public health concentration at GW, Vellanki is leveraging her knowledge and skills with the power of listening to better serve her patients.
“[When I first] began to creatively write patients’ stories to be shared in online literary journals, [I] realized the common themes always centered on barriers in accessing medical care, treatments, and follow-up appointments,” she recalls. “These were the issues that I was most passionate in bringing to light, and now as a resident, I have sought out a research project that would allow me to continue to explore these barriers while also contributing to the field of cardiology.”