When Birjot Kaur worked at a physical therapy clinic in Queens, New York City, she’d spend a lot of time with elderly patients. Some of them didn’t have families at home and Kaur – then a receptionist at the clinic – was happy to talk. She grew close with the seniors, who’d treat her like their grandchild.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic surged in New York City, putting Kaur in the epicenter of the public health crisis. Several of the older patients she knew died. Kaur noticed disparities in which neighborhoods had worse infection rates and less access to testing. They were similar to the neighborhood where she worked and grew up: Richmond Hill, a section of Queens.
“One patient resembled my grandfather a lot, who had just passed prior to the pandemic, and I told him that the first time he came to the clinic,” recalled Kaur, now a student at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “He said, ‘If you don’t have him anymore, I’ll be your grandpa.’ And that was the patient who passed away right after we opened the clinic back up. He changed everything for me.”
The pandemic motivated Kaur to pursue a career in health policy after previously wanting to be a lawyer. She came to the USC Price School in 2021 to earn a Master of Health Administration, seeking to carry out policies that correct health disparities. Two years later, she is headed back to New York City after she graduates in May. She will be an administrative fellow at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“I want to be a part of the fight against health disparities,” Kaur said. “In 10 years, I see myself opening up clinics in underserved communities similar to those I grew up and did my residency in.”
That previous residency, with the healthcare services company Optum, gave Kaur experience with a poorer, underserved population. She spent 10 months at a clinic in San Bernardino, where she helped with operations such as patient outreach for preventative screenings. She also assisted with implementing a new electronic health record and rebranding efforts after Optum’s acquisition of the clinic. She organized food drives and donations to families in need during the holidays, too.
“I got to see how this organization changed the lives of patients in the San Bernardino area,” Kaur said. “I was able to witness a bottom-up approach with quality of care.”
Hadia Laichi, director of clinical operations at Optum San Bernardino, said Kaur was “not just an MHA resident that needed to complete a thousand hours in order to graduate. She was part of the team.”
“Birjot constantly impressed us by her performance, creativity, and innovative thinking,” Laichi continued. “Her unique perspective added so much to the team. We’re so grateful to have had her with us.”
Kaur credits the USC Price School for not only the residency, but teaching her about social determinants of health. She recently worked on a class project in which students examined a population and identified the social determinants of health there, then came up with ideas to mitigate those issues.
These issues hit close to home. Kaur grew up in a low-income, low-educated community that fared worse during the pandemic than its more affluent neighbors just a few miles away.
At the physical therapy clinic in Richmond Hill, Kaur said she was the first person to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and advocated for it when speaking to patients hesitant to get the shot.
“I spoke to all the patients who had a totally different viewpoint on the vaccine, because culture has a significant impact on beliefs especially when it comes to healthcare,” said Kaur, who is Punjabi. “Since we share the same culture, I attempted to educate the patients on the misconceptions that have been circulating about the vaccine.”
She even scheduled vaccine appointments for any patient who needed help – a task that went well beyond her job description.
“It upset me that most of these elderly patients were unable to schedule vaccine appointments because they didn’t know where and how to schedule them and they weren’t given the necessary resources by community officials,” such as instructions in their primary language, Kaur said. “So I did it for them.”
On campus, Kaur was a member of the Student Health Council and served as Wellness Director, putting her in charge of social events. Kaur often brought therapy dogs to campus to help students relax, especially during midterms.
After commencement on May 12, Kaur will work in the neurosurgery department at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Similar to her residency at Optum, she will work with management in a newly-acquired department. While she’s glad to be going back home, she’s grateful for the time spent in California, which provided a more relaxed lifestyle, yet still got her to the next stage of her career at a young age.
“I would have never gotten to the places that I’m going to if it wasn’t for Price,” Kaur said. “Price, as a community, gave me everything that I have, and I’m very thankful for that.”