Student spotlight: Monica Avila, MD

Degree program/work experience: I will graduate with my MPH in healthcare management in May. I am a gynecologic oncology fellow at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Recent Honors and accomplishments: Recipient of the Dawn Gideon Foundation Scholarship from the Council on Accreditation on Healthcare Management Education (CAHME). The $2,000 scholarship is given annually to support women leaders in healthcare.

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Monica Avila, MD

I’m originally from: Albuquerque, New Mexico. My home state is currently ranked 34th out of the 50 states in the nation for delivery of care and access to care, according to U.S. News and World Report. And that's where my passion for public health and healthcare management originated, getting people to not just access clinical trials, but access to primary care in general. There are a lot of rural parts of New Mexico that don't have even primary care providers, let alone sub-specialists, let alone cancer care, which is my area of expertise.

What do you do at MD Anderson? As a fellow, I focus on cancers that affect women, such as uterine, ovarian and cervical cancer. The first two years are research and masters based. We do a Master of Public Health and perform our own research. I have a couple of clinical trials that I'm working on here—one studying the standard of care therapy plus immune checkpoint drugs in late stage endometrial cancer with Pamela Soliman, MD, MPH, the other with MD Anderson’s Department of Investigative Clinical trials on different types of solid tumors, including lung, ovary and breast. And then the second two years are clinical. We're surgeons by training, so, the second two years are focused more on surgery.

I chose the UTHealth School of Public Health healthcare management program because: effective change comes from effective leadership – and that has a big trickle-down effect. Just being a physician is no longer enough. You must have the skills to run a multidisciplinary team and impassion people to want to build a culture of change in healthcare. I chose this major to build the skill set I need to venture forth and become a leader, not just within oncology, but healthcare in general. UT Health School of Public Health has CAHME-accreditation going for it, which is fantastic and makes the program very reputable nationwide. And it’s great that the school is in the Texas Medical Center, which is such a rich healthcare environment that specializes in all areas of expertise.

A stand-out moment of the program has been: my practicum. I was lucky enough to be able to do mine through MD Anderson and garner more expertise in the clinical trials clinic, where I had one-on-one interactions with patients and primed them for trials. That’s a unique experience you won’t find at any other school of public health. The kind of partnership alliance you get through the Texas Medical Center, and the connections you make, are the program’s biggest strengths.

What I am looking forward to is: going out in the workforce and applying some of the components I learned along the way, such as being able to handle a multidisciplinary team. There's a whole staff of people invested in the care of patients. Navigating those relationships and building teams is certainly at the forefront of managing healthcare. The other component is being able to lead and mentor. Once we're clinical fellows, we are essentially in charge of our own clinical team with the help of our attendings. But at the same time, we are also teaching the next generation. We get residents and visiting medical students from all over the country and world who are part of these teams. Being able to have relationships with them and educate them about best practices, is another benefit of the healthcare management program’s managerial and leadership curriculum.

What I would really like to do in the future: is help vulnerable populations. I want to focus on education and recruitment of elderly and minority populations into therapeutic trials that they may not otherwise have had been able to access. That's where I hope to be headed, bringing forth trials that actually recruit these populations and then coming up with novel, educated ways of bringing in these types of patients.