“We Need to Stand Up for What We Believe”

Kaushal Shah MED’00 talks about COVID-19 and leadership in medicine

Kashil Shah

Kaushal Shah MED’00 is an emergency medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. He is vice chair of education for the New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine, where he leads and develops all educational programming. He was also named an Alpha Omega Alpha Fellow in Leadership by the Medical Honor Society. When the pandemic hit the U.S., he and his team were on the front lines treating patients with COVID-19.

Constant change with COVID-19

At the start of the pandemic, we planned to just have attending faculty see potential COVID patients to avoid exposure to trainees. That quickly became impossible to sustain with the large influx of patients—as many as 100 COVID patients a day. So everyone had to come on board to help.

The disease takes a huge mental toll on you. It doesn’t follow a natural course like influenza or pneumonia. Patients who are doing well can deteriorate quickly overnight. It’s difficult when a patient is very sick and cannot have their family there at their side. You call the family, and they have many questions, and we often don’t have the answers. That’s very hard.

By mid-May, things improved. Numbers of new patients dropped significantly and our caseload became more manageable. The virus has plowed through New York and we’re now running a robust follow-up program for people recovering from home. I’m happy with our governor who is following the scientific evidence and still urging caution, unlike what is happening in other states, like Texas and Arizona, that are seeing new spikes.

A physician’s challenge

The most important leadership approach now is honesty. There is much we don’t know, however, we do know that wearing masks and hand hygiene prevent spread of COVID. If people continue to do that, it does save lives. It’s crucial we communicate that everywhere.

The challenge of being a physician is that you are in a privileged position and people listen to you. So we have to be careful and responsible with what we tell people. There’s a lot of misinformation around COVID—certain drugs will work or drinking coffee or hot water will slow the virus. So I’m careful that everything I tell people is evidence-based.

A love of teaching

My love of teaching and education goes back to Geisel when I worked with the Dartmouth Koop Institute. I would go into rural communities in New Hampshire and Vermont and teach science at elementary schools.

Later, when I finished residency and went into emergency medicine, residents and medical students would pull me in, asking questions, hungry for education. I realized that I loved teaching and mentoring. Soon I was involved in residency leadership, then became residency director at Mount Sinai in New York City. It was those early years, though, teaching young children through the Koop Institute that got me hooked.

Role of a leader

As physician leaders today, we need to stand up for what we believe and make that known. We need to take action against the systemic racism in our society, to work together to eliminate the racial disparities in our health care system. All the medical societies have made statements and are taking action. So are the hospitals.

I’m active with a diversity and inclusion committee at my medical center. I also moderated a Q&A Zoom session on racial disparities in health care with surgeon and health care advocate Atul Gawande. He talked with New York and Boston emergency medicine physicians about how to make health care more accessible and available to minorities who are not getting adequate, high-quality care.

Early in my career, I learned that emotional intelligence—discerning what people are going through and what they need—is a really critical leadership skill. But now I believe we have to go beyond empathizing. It’s time to take action. Tackling racial disparities is an important step in making a difference.

I believe we have to go beyond empathizing. It’s time to take action.