Reprinted from ReNew Houston -- September 2020
For Dr. Keila Lopez, public health comes first — with pediatric cardiology a close second. That’s because, Lopez said, every field of medicine can be improved when the health of diverse populations are protected through equal access to education, medical care and quality of life.
“We know there are social determinants of health that affect your outcome, like where you live and what you eat,” Lopez said. “What’s your insurance? What’s your access to health care?” All of that came into focus during the coronavirus pandemic, Lopez said, especially as minority communities reported higher numbers of cases. “We know the community is disproportionately affected by this disease,” Lopez said. And she wants that to change.
As data became available from other cities, Lopez learned that Latino and Black communities were more adversely affected. That news set off an alarm, as she considered the ramifications for Houston. “We have the most diverse population in America,” she said. “The number of front-line and essential workers tends to be people of color or in lower economic neighborhoods.”
For the past few months, Lopez has brought her expertise to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Health Equity Response Task Force as part of two subcommittees: medical and public health. In both subcommittees, Lopez is working to ensure the proper messaging is going to minority and underrepresented groups.
The task force formed in April as part of the city’s relief and recovery efforts for the pandemic. It seeks to provide assistance for vulnerable and at-risk populations. The initiative is led by five division directors in the mayor’s office, charged with creating the vision and path to move forward. Juliet Stipeche, director of the city’s Office of Education, said that the mayor wanted strong, female leaders on the task force.
“Dr. Lopez has a real passion for community health,” Stipeche said. “She’s just fantastic. She’s worked tirelessly with us, and she exemplifies leadership, mentorship and education.” Lopez helped develop the Community Health Education Fellowship program with the UT School of Public Health. Participants explore public health education while learning about the work of community health workers and interacting with professionals in the field. Young adults participating in the program conduct outreach, advocacy, counseling and education in neighborhoods affected by COVID-19.
“She’s a fierce champion for the underserved in our community so adversely affected by COVID-19,” Stipeche said. “She has always been very inclusive and fights to get input from young people in the community. She’s just an amazing role model, too, very inspirational.” As a Latina, Lopez is positioned to inspire younger students who might feel culturally underrepresented in the health field. As the only Spanish-speaking physician on the task force, she is able to communicate the health risks and protective measures available to at-risk communities.
“I’d never envisioned being part of the mayor’s office,” Lopez said. “It’s been fascinating and rewarding work.” She joined a virtual town hall in August that aired on Univision as part of a panel addressing the myths and misconceptions of COVID-19. “She has gone above and beyond making an impact,” Stipeche said.
Prior to the pandemic, Lopez was already a leader, said Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.
Aagaard has worked alongside Lopez as clinical provider at Texas Children’s and has seen her mentor students in pediatric cardiology.
“She is a superb advocate for her patients and for her colleagues,” Aagaard said. “This includes colleagues in training and those out of training. Her inherent ability to see things from others’ perspectives, with great empathy and compassion, is a tremendous asset.” Lopez seeks new ways to care for patients with heart disease in their teen and early adult years, Aagaard said.
Originally from Chicago, Lopez cannot remember a time when she did not want to be a doctor.
“According to my parents, I’ve been saying I wanted to be a doctor since I was 6 years old,” she said. “I always knew. I felt in my heart it was what I wanted to do, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Lopez earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and Portuguese in 1998 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, entered a clinical research training program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and earned her medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 2003. Her residency in pediatrics was at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, where she then served as chief resident in pediatrics. Lopez earned her master of public health as a Commonwealth Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, with a concentration in minority health policy. The experience was formative. “It’s shaped how I look at the field,” Lopez said.
In 2008, she came to Houston for a pediatric cardiology fellowship at Texas Children’s Hospital, where she then became an advanced imaging fellow in pediatric cardiology. Lopez completed postdoctoral training in comparative effectiveness at the Columbia Summer Research Institute in New York and became a junior faculty scholar at the Baylor College of Medicine Center of Excellence in Health Equity, Training and Research in 2018.
She has taught, volunteered, conducted research and interventions on best methods to reduce health disparities and improve access to care in medicine.
She was recently published in Circulation, the cardiac journal of the American Heart Association. Her article was about the mortality in congenital heart disease in the U.S. during the past 19 years — and how that demonstrated ongoing racial and ethnic disparities, despite advances in medicine and surgery.
Lopez is also the recipient of a National Institutes of Health early career grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Her mission is to create a mobile application intervention to reduce disparities in congenital heart disease patients by improving the transition between pediatric and adult care.
Currently, Lopez serves as “diversity and inclusion ambassador” for the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, as well as a co-faculty adviser for the Baylor College of Medicine Latino Medical Student Association.
She created the Latinx Brainchild Project, an initiative that pairs Latino academic faculty at Baylor with medical students who are interested in improving care, health and outcomes for underserved communities. Participants join in quality improvement, advocacy, research, educational and wellness projects.
“It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done — to reach back and pull others up with you,” she said. Lopez hopes to see more Latinos in health care. The only way to stop disparity, like what is happening with COVID-19, is to promote health in diverse communities — and to ensure that members of those communities are represented in medicine. “We’ve got to do more,” Lopez said.
Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based writer.