A talk with Dr. Angel M. Schaffer
By Erin Nicole Herriford | OW Contributor
In 1915, civil rights activist Booker T. Washington founded National Negro Health Week which was designed to address health disparities affecting African Americans caused by poor working and living conditions.
In 2002, the U.S. Congress resolved that there should be a National Minority Health and Health Disparities Month. The month of April is recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as National Minority Health Awareness month, which is designed to educate citizens about the importance of improving health within the minority community. More than 60% of racial and ethnic minority adult patients feel it’s important to visit a doctor who shares and or exercises understanding their culture.
In keeping with that initiative, Dr. Angel M. Schaffer of Los Angeles has a wealth of experience and knowledge of circumstantial concerns patients face in addition to their healthcare needs. Schaffer graduated from UCLA Medical School and is currently a practicing physician at Kaiser Permanente South Bay. Schaffer also serves as a mentor for medical students looking to become future practicing physicians with both the Association of Black Women Physicians (ABWP) and Me.Mentor and Kaiser Permanente Hippocrates Circle. She holds a strong commitment to racial equity and diversity.
Schaffer’s passion for medicine has continued to make meaningful contributions to the ever-changing and rapidly evolving medical field. This month is particularly meaningful for her as she recalls a pivotal childhood moment that shaped her future career and socioeconomic goals as both an aspiring physician.
Schaffer recalls her mother giving birth to a child and then having a difficult time breathing a few days later due to postpartum cardiomyopathy. “My mom’s heart was damaged, and she was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy. She was evaluated for a heart transplant, which was denied by a committee—composed exclusively of White, male doctors–who assumed her home life was too unstable.” Upon returning home to take care of her mother, her mother said to her: “She told me, ‘It’s time for you to become a doctor to help right the wrong,’ having learned firsthand about bias in health care, especially the lack of knowledge and empathy that was prevalent at that time, and to some extent, continues to exist in many areas today,” she said.
Schaffer recalled experiencing a feeling of déjà vu when a friend called upon her to assist her daughter who was suffering with heart failure. The young woman was a mother of two and a person of color and was also denied a heart transplant just a decade ago. The young woman perished as a result . Unfortunately, the lack of resources and access to healthcare services for people of color in particular appears to be a continuous issue for our society to face and address.
A large part of eliminating bias and creating empathy within medicine is owed to active listening.
Schaffer emphasizes the importance of listening to your patients. She notes “I think it’s important to develop trust- that’s extremely important for me-with my patients it’s really about building a relationship because especially often with African-Americans there’s an automatic distrust when you walk in the door.”
Schaffer’s philosophy is to listen and allow the information patients give her to help her in assisting with a plan of treatment, which helps to build patient-physician trust. Creating a sense of care, compassion and community is essential to fostering trust filled relationships with patients, Schaffer emphasized the importance of rapport, noting that pre-covid she happily attended retirement parties, baby showers and graduations to provide support for families and patients.
Schaffer’s compassionate approach is more than likely due to her positive relationship with her mother and the adversities and knowledge she had to offer her daughter with regards to good bedside manners, compassion and how to positively support those around her. Schaffer fondly remarks “She was certainly a hero .We often look at heroes as those who have umpteen degrees, that have saved the world or done these what we would perceive as miraculous things but I considered her very successful because she fulfilled what she had set out to do—not only that I was a doctor but one that would be in tune to patients and that would help to close up the gap of racism that you often will see.”
Although a rewarding career, no career industry comes without its challenges. Within the last three years with the Covid-19 pandemic at large we have seen a heightened increase of mental health challenges. The pandemic has unmasked the importance of addressing social, emotional, financial, mental, and personal challenges while regularly receiving healthcare services.
There is a direct correlation of the close relationship between the mental health challenges people are facing in addition to their physical health. Additionally, physicians on the front line are often in high demand and under time constraints. It is important to be mindful when addressing patients experiencing layered, complex, sensitive and or multi-faceted issues. Patients’ needs are sometimes multi-layered and it’s important to address all of the other factors and or layers in order to arrive at the issues with their physical health.
Despite the time constraints and other responsibilities as a physician and mother, Schaffer participates in additional volunteer work with Kaiser Permanente and keeps up to date with frequent training the hospital provides.
“I’m so proud that Kaiser Permanente has programs like the Hippocrates Circle, which gets students from diverse communities interested in health care at an early age, and that equity, inclusion, and diversity are core tenets of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena,” Schaffer said. “It gives me hope that health care of the future will be even more inclusive of all voices, in ways my mom never got to experience.”