The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. We've partnered with Elivade, a career advancement platform for Black and brown professionals, to help you take these L-Suite tips to the next level. Sign up here to easily find and network with peers and offer or seek mentorship. This month, we're talking with Obstetrician-Gynecologist Dr. Ali, MD about the need for Latinas in medicine, redefining taboo topics in the Latinx community, and how she rose to viral fame with serviceable content.
Despite the increase of diversity among women graduates in the medical field, the percentage of Latinas in medicine has decreased, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Between 2013 to 2018, the number of Latinas who graduated from medical school went from 5.6 to 5.4 percent. This decrease falls on a number of reasons, including costs, not seeing anyone they know as doctors, or the time it takes to get their degree. All of this discourages Latinas and ultimately underserves Latinx communities, who face language barriers, are misdiagnosed, or fail to understand their medical needs.
Dr. Ali, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Phoenix, Arizona, hopes to change this reality as one of the few Latinas in the medical field. Growing up with her father as a doctor and their close relationship, her interest in science and medicine sparked from an early age. As an undergrad, she took her pre-med classes at the University of Arizona. She then went to medical school at San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised until the age of three when her parents decided to move to Arizona. Her journey to getting to where she is now as a medical professional has taken her 13 years, which includes one gap year, but she’s proud of how far she’s gotten and the representation it gives to Latinas in the field. Now, Dr. Ali brings that representation to more audiences as she builds an online presence with viral educational videos on TikTok and Instagram. Today, the Puerto Rican doctor has over 1.3 million followers on TikTok with over 15 million likes, along with nearly 60,000 followers on Instagram. She has amassed a following with videos that debunk medical myths, answer women’s health questions, and cover uncomfortable topics like female sexual dysfunction.
With her rise to viral fame, we asked the doctor about the realities of being a Latina in medicine and the need to have more in the field. She also got real about building an online presence to discuss topics that Latinx communities find taboo, like vaginal health and birth control. Here’s everything she had to say, ahead.
Becoming an OB-GYN
Dr. Ali planned on following her father's footsteps in becoming a surgeon. However, during her last two years of medical school — which is considered the clinical years when students do their rotations in a hospital — she changed her mind. "During my third year, I did my OB-GYN rotation, and the doctor I was with let me deliver a baby, and that's when a light switched on — from that point on, I just couldn't stop thinking about it," Dr. Ali tells Refinery29. "I loved how empowering it was to care for women and to be able to relate to them. It just changed everything, and that's what made me want to be an OB-GYN." She advises those who feel any pressure to follow in their parent's exact footsteps — a common sentiment felt by many children of immigrants — to focus on what truly makes them happy because at the end of the day, it's their life.
As an OBGYN, Dr. Ali loves that she doesn't just get to connect with and help women but also serve the Spanish-speaking Latinx communities as a medical professional fluent in the language. "In my clinics, because I'm fluent in Spanish, I would say more than 50% of my patients are Spanish-speaking only. You can see on a person's face [that language] just changes everything," she expresses. She has seen the difference it makes in appointments when patients don't have to use an interpreter or bring along a family member for translation. It provides a sense of confidence and trust in the patient as they express their concerns and that lends to higher return rates in follow-up or occurring appointments. That's why Dr. Ali hopes to see more diversity within the field to serve more communities.
Setting doubt on fire
While her medical expertise is needed in Latinx communities, Dr. Ali shares that being Latinx and a woman isn't always welcomed with open arms by some patients. "I've had patients and sometimes co-workers, especially in residency, make comments on either not wanting to see a female doctor or wanting to see a white male doctor because they know more than me. I've had patients deny me to provide them care simply because I wasn't white," she says of a field that is predominately white and male. "It was really tough to deal with — but I take that experience to fuel my fire to make it known how important it is to have more people that look like me and more people that speak Spanish in my field." Dr. Ali urges everyone to use any doubt, whether it comes from yourself or others, to continue in their career path and never give up on their dreams.
Those discrediting experiences have fueled Dr. Ali to make her voice louder and share her expertise on social media in addition to being a full-time OB-GYN. She believes that the younger generation seeing more Latinas in the medical field online will encourage them to pursue a career in medicine. "We're putting ourselves out there so that younger kids can be like, 'She looks like me, and she did it, so I can do it," she says of all the Latina medical professionals sharing their experience online. "We're really encouraging people and letting them know that it's possible."
Going viral on social media
Dr. Ali has built an online presence informing others about taboo topics like sex, vaginal health, menopause, and birth control, which are often not discussed in many Latinx households. The lack of discussion within these communities falls on many reasons, including lack of information, religious beliefs, or believing that talking about it only encourages sexual behavior. However, Dr. Ali isn't afraid to inform her patients, clear up any misinformation that they've read on platforms like Whatsapp, or break down anything they might not comprehend.
She became more active on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube as she quarantined when the pandemic started last year. With the free time she had while waiting to start at her practice after graduation, Dr. Ali wanted to extend her expertise and become a resource to her followers online. In one year, she went from 300 followers to over one million followers on TikTok, with her most viral video answering one follower's question: 'How long should sex last?'
Dr. Ali saw the need for this education way before garnering her social following. "I started seeing patients in residency, and I realized how lacking sex education is in the U.S. and how little my patients knew about their own bodies," she shares. "Also, being Latina, in our household, we got the sex talk and period talk from my mom, but it was never something that was openly talked about afterward. For Latino communities, you just don't ask questions and figure it out on your own, which is really dangerous. I rather women feel empowered and educated — and people have responded really well [to the videos.]"
With the help of her older sister, who lives in Miami, she meets up with her virtually once a week, and they plan out a month's worth of content based on her followers' questions and comments they've made in previous videos. For Dr. Ali, it's about making medical knowledge more accessible while inspiring others to either trust in science and medicine or become a professional in an industry that needs them.
"People will just Google privately and feel ashamed for even wanting to ask questions," she expresses. "I think people are responding [to my videos] because I'm putting those questions out there." The doctor stresses that she's not in it for anything but being approachable and helpful to others: "I'm just trying to normalize this. I don't want it to be like 'I'm a doctor. I'm so much better than you.' I want people to feel like, 'I'm your friend, who just happens to be an OB-GYN."