Indian American Physicians firmly committed to improving health care globally

Chicago IL: Thursday, May 23, Indian doctors from all over the country converged on downtown Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel & Towers for the 31st annual convention of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), arguably the largest diaspora organization in the world. The first four days of the gala that continued into Monday, May 27 celebrated the leadership and displayed the achievements of outgoing AAPI President Narendra Kumar, culminating on Sunday night in handing over of the gavel and torch to young Jayesh Shah. Mornings were filled with well-attended continuous medical education (CME) while evening banquets provided relaxation with varied entertainment. The lunches and dinners took on the air of mini-summits, for the panels featured distinguished politicians and executives representing Indo-US convergence.

Senator (D) Dick Durbin, American Medical Association (AMA) President Jeremy Lazarus MD, and GM’s VP for Corporate Diversity Eric Peterson spoke at Friday lunch, while Senator (D) Harry Reid, Rep. (D) Tulsi Gabbard, and Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) VP Jack Boulet spoke the next day. Saturday dinner banquet featured Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao and Rep. (R) Peter Roskam; Sunday’s dinner was graced with speeches by Illinois Governor (D) Patrick Quinn, Union Cabinet Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, and Chris Kaplan from Boehringer Ingelheim. Awards were conferred by these dignitaries. At the request of Rep. (D) Ami Bera, who presented a video message at Sunday lunch, the flag flown over the US Capitol this May 20 was flown for this AAPI convention.

Recurrent themes across their speeches were the centrality of unity-in-diversity to the cultures and civic life of both nations, Asian immigration as the legitimate and necessary continuation and expansion of the earlier influx of white settlement, urgency of healthcare and immigration reform in the US, tremendous contributions of Indian American physicians to healthcare in their countries of origin and adoption especially for the underprivileged, and AAPI’s growing political clout as the second largest association of medical professionals. Lazarus, Peterson, Boulet, and Kaplan also spoke of India’s contributions to medicine and various Indo-US and public-private partnerships taking shape. While the US politicians highlighted their close and longstanding personal ties to the Indian community through autobiographical sketches, Rao underscored the grassroots people-to-people relationship that is at the core of the Indo-US relationship.

Seated at the dais throughout with invited speakers were AAPI executive committee members: MDs President Narendra Kumar, Convention Chair Birinder Marwah, Co-Chair Umang Patel, and Awards Committee Chair Arvind Pillai. Anwar Feroz, who has been instrumental in organizing the Global Healthcare Summit (GHS) in Kochi in Jan 2013, introduced the MCs at each session.

Following a brief video-message from Senator (R) Mark Kirk of Illinois, Dick Durbin began by listing the achievements, contributions, and public recognition of Indian Americans such as Rajiv Shah (USAID Administrator), Sunil Kumar (UC Booth School), Subra Suresh (NSF Director), Srikanth ‘Sri’ Srinivasan (U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit), and Atul Gawande (Brigham and Women’s Hospital). He defended the Affordable Care Act as workable though imperfect, with 3.1M young adults now being covered. Sequestration, intended only as a threat, has become a reality due to Republican obstinacy, which has in inacceptable cuts in medical research and funding of cancer centers. Advocating a more generous immigration policy, he noted that the Senate judiciary committee has voted 13 to 5 for reforms to be taken up this June. Given the droves of Indian students at premier educational institutions such as the Illinois Institute of Technology, this co-sponsor of the DREAM Act (2001) insisted that graduates be offered a green card along with their diploma so that they remain to contribute to the nation. “Immigration is our strength” concluded this son of a Lithuanian mother and went on to acknowledge Raja Krishnamoorthy, who had worked closely with the Obama campaigns.

Lazarus reiterated AMA’s commitment to improve healthcare globally and in India. He warned of a looming physician shortage by 60K in four years. He thanked Kumar’s help in recruitment efforts with AMA now standing 36K strong. AAPI founding patron member and Chair, Prevention of Blindness committee, VK Raju was honored on Feb. 11 with AMA’s Excellence in Medicine Award for his charitable work across 21 countries. Lazarus also underlined the challenges to be faced: broken Medicare payment system, repealing the independent payment advisory board (IPAB), and lifting the cap on Medicare-funded graduate medical education (GME). He also voiced concern for the dire situation of international medical graduates (IMG), with their interests being underrepresented on relevant committees. Peterson spoke of the General Motors design plant being built in India, one of only eight worldwide, to serve the whole of Asia. GM, which sees India as becoming the largest auto market in the world, is paying close attention to corporate social responsibility, safety, health, and environment. The GM-funded Buick Achievers Scholarship disburses $4.5M annually towards education in the US. He concluded by promoting GM’s all-new Cadillac XTS luxury sedan and its upcoming DLR-driven electric car.

Kusum Punjabi, leader of AAPI’s Young Physicians Section (YPS), was MC at the Saturday lunch. Dr. Prabhu introduced Sen. (D) Harry Reid as a follower of Gandhi, a friend of India and Indian Americans, who pushed through the Indo-US nuclear deal at the end of 2008, and is working hard on Medicare and on increasing the number of Indian physicians and residencies in US. Reid recounted how he was born of uneducated parents in a small community, without hot water or inside toilet, but managed to make it into the top third of his class at 5th grade. He used to give rides in the bitter cold to Indian students at Utah State University, and was eventually feted and gifted a hand-carved statue of Gandhi, the only memento he did not pass on to his kids but transferred to his Congressional office. Though money, religion, education, skin color, etc. don’t matter in US, he used to be embarrassed by who he was. Listening to Alex Haley (author of Roots) he learned this lesson: “Be proud of who you are and where you came from. Remember your roots, because you can’t get away from them.” Contrasting insular Japan, which had been once held up as a model for American enterprise, he underscored the wealth-producing effects of an open-door policy: “We have a broken immigration system that we need to fix,” he declared. “Congressional Republicans have offended everybody including Republicans.”

Introducing Tulsi Gabbard, Dr. Bharat Barai recounted how, by winning the 42nd House District of the Hawaii House of Representatives at age 21, she became the youngest woman to be elected to a US state legislature. Nevertheless, she voluntarily sacrificed her reelection bid in 2004 in order to serve with the National Guard in Iraq, only to be reelected in 2013 as the first Hindu member of Congress. Of Samoan-Caucasian parentage and converting by choice as a teenager, Gabbard affirmed her attachment to India through her adopted faith and its spiritual gift of the Bhagavad Gita, the bedrock of her political commitments. “My message is my life,” she quoted Gandhi. Though she spoke on behalf of both Indian and Hindu Americans and for Indo-US relations, there was palpable tension that kept resurfacing in the self-image projected by the AAPI Convention, capped by the Soorya Festival: reaffirmation of a long suppressed religious identity versus a more inclusive and open-ended understanding of the latter.

Gabbard joined Mahendra Kumar afterwards in conferring awards on AAPI President-Elect Jayesh Shah, VP Ravi Jagardar, Secretary Seema Jain, Treasurer Ajai Lodha, immediate Past President Sunita Kanamuri, YPS Leader Kusum Punjabi, and Dr. Amit Chakrabarty. Saturday’s dinner banquet was emceed by Prem Rupani and Manju Sachdev. Rao and Roskam later joined Kumar in presenting media awards to TV Asia (received by Rohit Vyas on behalf of HR Shah), Sahara TV (Sudhir Vaishnav), Parikh Worldwide Media (Sudhir Parikh), India Abroad (received by George Joseph on behalf of Rajeev Bhambri), Telegraph (KP Nayar), India Tribune (Prashant Shah), India Post (Ramesh Soparwala), and Suresh Jilla (photography).

Narendra Kumar introduced ambassador Nirupama Rao as a fellow Keralite, and the stamp of this most literate Indian state was discernible through his tenure as AAPI President, for example the first ever presentation in USA of the Soorya Festival. Rao began with a sustained analogy between government bodies and physician associations as “doing God’s work” and with similar concerns, such as financial integrity. She reported on some of India’s success stories: purchasing power parity that is third in the world, 50% drop in new HIV cases and 25% drop in HIV-related deaths over the last ten years, and development of a low-cost ($1 per dose) rotavirus vaccine to prevent severe infant diarrhea (first such breakthrough in the last hundred years). She felicitated AAPI for its health clinics, outreach, post-calamity relief work, and the successful global health summit in Kochi (Kerala) that drew 1200 delegates from around the world. Having invoked the meeting in Geneva between US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad, and the 35 meetings between the two sides towards collaboration, Rao urged further expansion of the many private-public partnerships already existing in India. She cited the Wipro-GE consortium to provide imaging equipment, especially for women, in Maharashtra. Referring to President Obama’s Nov. 2010 visit to India and contrasting her three years previously as ambassador of the “world’s largest modern democracy” to the Republic of China, Rao characterized US-India ties as a defining “people-to-people” (as opposed to a primarily governmental) relationship.

Peter Roskam was introduced by Chicago resident Dr. Srinivas Reddy as fourth-term representative from Illinois’ 6th district, fourth-ranking Republican, and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, the biggest caucus in the US. Unlike his Democratic counterparts, Roskam hardly spoke of any reforms or bills being pushed through the legislatures. Instead, he focused on the close relationship that his parents in Hinsdale had built over the years with a young Indian student couple that they had encountered on the steps of the Shedd Aquarium. Shanti and Ramesh eventually ended up babysitting Roskam’s elder siblings at home, while he was being born at the hospital. Underlining the shared Indo-American values of family, education, etc., he recounted the surprise of his four children, while registering voters for his 2006 campaign for Congress, as they discovered the “Patel family” inhabiting five neighboring houses in a row. He joked how he had enlightened them that this “family” was much larger than they could possibly imagine. As he was concluding, MC Prem Rupani promised to report this wonderful speech to his emergency room colleague Steve, Roskam’s elder brother, and urged the Congressman to take it upon himself to pass the Medicare bill.

At Sunday lunch, Feroz introduced Awards Committee Chair Arvind Pillai, who distinguished the different awards and their recipients selected through a nomination process. The following MDs received special awards: Mani Menon (Most Distinguished Physician), Dattatreyudu Nori (Most Distinguished Physician Service to AAPI), and Sonia Malhotra (Most Distinguished MSRF). Board of Trustees Chair Durgesh Mankikar was then invited to present awards to each member of the 22-member Board. Convention Advisor Prem Rupani also served as Master of Ceremonies. Rupani and Swaminathan were MCs at the Sunday evening banquet, where the American and Indian national anthems were sung by David Cangelosi and Tara Swaminathan respectively.

Vayalar Ravi had met AAPI executives on Jan 9 at Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (“Non-Resident Indian Day”), and his Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs had supported the AAPI Global Healthcare Summit (GHS) also held at Kochi. He pointed out that health indicators in Kerala were ten years ahead of the northeastern states of the federation. The 4.1% of India’s GDP devoted to health is lower than the ratio in many other emerging nations. Private sector contributes more than the government and the future lies in public-private partnership. Medical tourism, health insurance, etc., are growing industries. Recognizing the desire of overseas Indians to contribute towards nation-building in India, Vayalar introduced the Global-India Networking of Knowledge (Global-INK) for knowledge sharing and transnational collaboration in health, education, and environment. Earlier, in the afternoon, Ravi had called a news conference with local ethnic media to better understand the needs and concerns of the diaspora communities they serve. On Saturday afternoon, he had presided over the presentation by an aide of the India Development Foundation of Overseas Indians (IDF-OI) being instituted to better channel NRI funds and philanthropic initiatives to improve living conditions, including healthcare delivery, in rural India.

Raja Krishnamoorthy introduced his friend Governor Pat Quinn as the previous State Treasurer and Lt. Governor, who had been invited clean up the mess that was Illinois politics, with preceding governors spending jail time for corruption. Quinn had enacted the toughest ethic reforms and is focused on the following four priorities: create jobs and turn the economy around, healthcare reform that will open access to another one million people, comprehensive immigration reform, and fostering innovation in the economy through biotech, renewable energy, etc. Translating Obamacare as “I do care” (for inner city residents, etc.), the 64-year old Governor relived his long march in the August heat from the Rock Island Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi all the way across Illinois to Chicago losing 15 pounds along the way, all for the sake of healthcare a feat he compared to Gandhi’s Salt March. He also recalled that this was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Asian American Heritage Month.

Senior VP and Chief of Marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim, Chris Kaplan amply demonstrated his knowledge of Indian spirituality, traditional medicine, and Western art, through his lengthy prepared speech accompanied by a slide presentation that also featured examples of contemporary Indian art. He began with Swami Vivekananda’s message of unity-in-diversity to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, recalling an Upanishadic hymn from his childhood, and felt that this “compassionate view” was continuing to be implemented through the efforts of AAPI in bringing healthcare to the poor and needy in both India and the USA.

Ravi and Quinn joined Narendra Kumar in conferring Presidential Awards on Kaplan and Feroz, and also on MDs George Thomas, Vinod Shah, Jagan Ailinani, Shrikant Mishra, Ketan Mehta, Rajinder Arora, and Birinder Marwah. Convener Marwah took great pride at having been designated to show off Chicago, his home of 35 years, to AAPI visitors. He was grateful at this opportunity to discover the extraordinary talent among physicians of Indian origin attested by the achievements, presentations, and appreciations of CME speakers. Introduced by Marwah, Kumar received a special award from Minister Ravi before delivering the presidential address.

The outgoing President Narendra Kumar, whose vision and dedication was praised by team members and peers throughout the convention, outlined AAPI’s achievements over the previous year. The institution of regional conferences in different states is a “game changer” that more deeply engages the various AAPI chapters and attracts new sponsors, such that AAPI is taking the lead in knitting the Indian diaspora more closely together. He credited Minister Ravi for proposing and unconditionally supporting the Kochi GHS held in January that attracted 1500 participants and has placed the hitherto bilateral AAPI on the global map as an international platform for delivering affordable quality healthcare. Long-term strategic alliances have been forged with the four largest healthcare companies: Boehringer Ingelheim, Synobia [verify name], Medtronic, and Ingersheim, as starters. AAPI’s legislative agenda has been taken to Capitol Hill and is receiving enthusiastic support from both sides of the aisle. He called for greater vigilance and visibility in this changing healthcare environment. Thanking his foot-soldiers, Kerala classmates, and family members who had stood by him, he singled out advisor Anwar Feroz, before insisting on all the assembled members giving themselves a round of applause for these accomplishments.

Kumar introduced young President-elect Dr. Jayesh Shah, who received the gavel and made a resounding acceptance speech that began by felicitating his predecessor’s achievements, including putting AAPI on a sound financial footing and enlisting reliable long-term sponsors. He invited Kumar’s wife and rest of the family to the dais to receive tokens of appreciation. Shah launched into an interesting digression on how the wooden gavel currently used by the US Senate was gifted in 1954 by the Republic of India, thereby perhaps underlining the role of the AAPI President in forging ever closer ties between the two nations. Every seventh patient in the US is diagnosed by an Indian physician and 20% of the students at US medical schools are Indian. He invited all the past AAPI presidents and Chairman of the Board of Trustees to stand up and be acknowledged. He recalled the climate of blatant discrimination in which AAPI was born 31 years ago, when Indian physicians were still relegated to remote rural areas and received 90% of their fees from Medicare and Medicaid. Today AAPI is the second largest organization of physicians in the US, next only to AMA, and the largest ethnic organization of a diaspora, globally influencing important issues such as GME, physician workforce, and saving healthcare delivery in US. With the US-India summit that led to the smoking ban in public places in India, the Indian Govt. has entrusted AAPI this year with developing similar protocols for common diseases that are huge public concerns. Growing collaboration with physician organizations in India was highlighted by 200 AAPI members traveling to the Kochi GHS to brainstorm with triple the number of their Indian counterparts. Shah invited everyone, especially those who had not yet visited his home state of Gujarat, to GHS 2014 in Ahmedabad. AAPI’s next great initiative is to address the problem of childhood obesity both in the US and globally. AAPI will adopt 100 schools across the 50 US States, with the first two already adopted in Tulsa (Oklahoma) and Dallas (Texas). The initiative will culminate in the first AAPI walkathon at the 2014 Convention in San Antonio (Texas). AAPI Charitable Foundation will now go beyond this single annual national convention to hosting regional events in nine different metropolitan centers to enable greater participation from members. He welcomed the immediate challenge of the Affordable Care Act as the opportunity for Indian physicians to extend their services to the underprivileged, as they have been already doing over the last six decades since they first began arriving on these shores.

The evening entertainment was designed around parallel themes such as introducing the beauty of the city and its cultural life to out-of-town visitors, bringing here to Chicago the diversity and idiosyncrasies of the motherland, and overall to show that hardworking Indian doctors could be also artistically gifted and fun-loving people. Early arrivers discovered on Thursday evening that “AAPI Got Talent” (variety show). Spruced up as models, Convention Chair Birinder Marwah and Co-Chair Umang Patel gate crashed into the tail-end of Nishi Bahl’s Friday evening fashion show to offer a comic rendering of Bhangra and numbers such as “Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast” (movie Mohra) that the delegates found simply hilarious.
While the Sheraton stands along the scenic river walk, the lake cruise that followed offered wider views of the cityscape, with socializing over dinner and disco dancing. Saturday evening featured playback singer KK (Krishnakumar Kunnath) from Mumbai, while many left to enjoy the Chicago blues within the city. Performing in North America for the first time on Sunday, Soorya Festival from Kerala directed by Soorya Krishnamoorthy offered a nonstop medley of Sanskrit chants, male acrobatics, classical Bharata Natyam and Kathak, tribal and fusion dances, movie songs from the regional languages (Hindi, Tamil, etc.), and thumping percussion exchanges. “King of Comedy” Raju Srivastava from Mumbai obliged the Americanized professionals, who still filled the hall well past midnight, to roll over with fits of laughter as he reminded them in Hindi of often rather “primitive” roots in India. And immediately after his sober speech accepting his new responsibilities at the Sunday dinner banquet, President-elect Jayesh Shah was joined by his family on the dais in performing a Latin-Hindi dance that attempted to fuse his Indian roots with his adopted San Antonio local culture. Attendees could be overhead day-after-day singing the praises of the Windy City.

Formally inaugurated by Sen. Durbin on Friday afternoon, the exhibition hall featured a wide range of pharmaceutical products, medical services, support systems, and also other vendors of Indian clothes and handicrafts, even real estate including retirement homes in Sri Lanka, and matchmaking services for professionals. Major sponsors of the convention were Qatar Airways and Bharat Matrimonial, which offered a well-attended standup comedy on miscommunication between the sexes, particularly those brought up by traditional parents in a Desi environment.