By Ayaka Hasegawa, '19

Throughout his sophomore year, Soleil Shah, ’17, volunteered as a certified health insurance counselor, helping uninsured Virginians sign up for health insurance plans at Planned Parenthood and other free clinics.

One day, he met a 29-year old woman who needed a gallbladder surgery but could not afford one. She was poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but because she did not have a child, Virginia laws kept her from receiving the aid she needed. He found it sobering to realize that external factors in the policy were preventing people from accessing healthcare. Naturally, he started to have questions: “What can we do about it? And how do we try to influence and impact change?”

Finding answers to these questions has driven Shah’s time at Richmond. In fact, his path to understanding healthcare policy actually began a year earlier when he arrived at Richmond planning to major in political science and leadership studies. After participating in the Integrated Qualitative Science course, he developed a fascination for medicine and switched his major to biochemistry and molecular biology.

At the same time, he wanted to continue pursuing his interest in political science. Taking political science professor Tracy Roof’s First-Year Seminar, Healthcare Politics and Policy in the U.S. and Around the World, helped him find the intersection of his interests. He further explored these connections through a healthcare studies minor, internships, and study abroad.

He also signed up for the Global Health Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course, taught by Dr. Rick Mayes. Shah and his classmates spent a fall weekend in Grundy, Va., volunteering at an event that offered free medical care to hundreds of Virginia residents without access to health insurance. Directly hearing stories from them was an “eye-opening” experience, he said.

“I spoke to coal miners seeking medical care who lost their insurance after the shutdown of local coal factories,” Shah said. “Without health coverage, these people were forced to rely on free clinics. I was able to see how social determinants affected people's health firsthand.”

Shah’s next step toward furthering his understanding of healthcare policy was a year-long study abroad program at University of Oxford during his junior year. While there he worked on a collaborative research project between the U.K. and India on recent mental health policy enactments in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He learned about the stigma around mental illnesses in India and how patients avoid treatment because they are fearful of people’s reactions.

Shah and his team came up with preventive policy recommendations that aimed to raise awareness about mental health instead of hiring more medical personnel in the regions. Through this research, he gained deeper insight into the healthcare world. “My time abroad gave me a glimpse into the interdisciplinary nature of medicine and health,” he said, “and further inspired me to pursue these fields in my eventual career.”

The summer after his study abroad, Shah worked at the Alliance for Health Reform in Washington, D.C., as a health policy intern. Not only did he conduct research on delivery system reform, but he also organized and executed congressional and reporter briefings to discuss and inform healthcare policies to journalists and congressional staffers.

“From this internship, I learned the importance of facilitation in policy,” Shah reflected back. “Improvements in our healthcare system cannot occur until knowledge gaps are addressed and stakeholders across the political spectrum are brought together to discuss key issues.”

Shah feels that his personal interactions with individuals seeking healthcare, as well as his wide-ranging experience learning about and working to improve healthcare policy, will help him as he pursues medical school.

“My long-term goal is to treat high-need, low-income patients as a physician,” Shah said. “But [it is] also to advocate and implement policies that improve their access to medical treatment and care.”