Dr. Leana Wen

emergency physician, public health leader, patient advocate

Why I Write


"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If we just looked for them, we can find injustices everywhere. Hurricane Katrina exposed Americans to abject poverty and health disparities right in our backyard. Many more injustices exist "over there," in developing nations, that result in millions of preventable deaths and lifetimes of wasted talent and squandered opportunity. I want to fight these injustices and change the world.

My upbringing exposed me to injustices first hand. Raised in a dissident family in China, I came to the U.S. on political asylum after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We were outsiders in a Communist regime and remained outsiders in predominantly Mormon Utah and then inner-city Los Angeles. Though Shanghai, Logan and Compton have little else in common, they all bear witness to the differences between the haves and have-nots, and I grew up keenly aware of the impact of political, cultural and socioeconomic oppression. As a child with life-threatening asthma and debilitating speech impediment, I also confronted the stigma of disability and the challenges of seeking healthcare with limited resources.

Yet the mechanisms to address injustices eluded me. I thought that becoming a doctor would allow me to help those most in need; however, I witnessed more problems than found solutions that had sustainable rather than short-term impact. Our H.I.V.-positive patients would receive antiretrovirals, but we would not know if they had food at home to stave off starvation. Our orphans with pneumonia would be cured with antibiotics, but we are not changing their lives of destitution, chronic malnutrition and forced prostitution. Pills might help the individual patients at that point in their lives, but does not resolve the root causes of their problems.

Global change requires more than pills and individual-level change: it hinges on concerted education and mobilization. There are acute illustrations everywhere we look of preventable atrocities that proceeded because of public silence: the Rwandan genocide, the scourge of H.I.V, the conflict in Darfur—and in our own backyard, the millions of people in the U.S. who are uninsured and have little or no access to healthcare. Short of bringing everyone to afflicted communities to experience first-hand conflict and disease, the next best thing is to find ways to communicate to people who otherwise are content to live in our insular worlds.

My passion is to communicate to the public—to you—as a method of effecting change. Doctors are natural storytellers who have the privilege of hearing, seeing and experiencing the lives of our patients. I have heard my patients' stories, and now want to help tell them. Treating a patient's problems and moving on to the next ailment is not enough, and I want instead to convey my patients' stories and describe their communities' struggles. I want to solve global problems by educating and motivating people to action. I work to fight for our patients, on the global stage and right here in our own communities. I educate our patients to advocate for themselves, and educate future doctors on the social mission of our work. I aim to make a difference and become a change agent against injustices.

Portions of this were published by the New York Times.
For more on why I write, please visit my blog and our book website.