Community, Headline, Health, Immigration

Dr Navin Shah: an immigrant surgeon’s inspiring fight for equality

Dr Navin C. Shah

Dr Shah’s pet project to improve health care in India will promote many business and philanthropic joint ventures

Half a century ago, a young Indian surgeon embarked on what he calls “a brave and scary journey” from his native Poona in Maharashtra for the United States, the land of opportunity, chasing the American dream.

Five decades later, Dr Navin C. Shah has emerged as a leading urologist practicing in the Washington DC area. But that’s only half the story.

Read: Indian American doctors raise $15,000 for suicide prevention (October 14, 2022)

He has not only built a successful career for himself, but has also led the fight for justice for medical graduates from 80 other countries, who were once treated as second class physicians by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Dr Shah has also initiated multiple health projects, with the help of Indian American physicians, to improve medical education and health care in India. His efforts have brought him several awards.

But not the one to rest on his laurels, Dr Shah is determined to persuade the Indian government to fund for infrastructure to obtain the willing US doctors of Indian origin to augment medical education, health care and medical research.

Dr Shah has penned the story of an immigrant’s beautiful and inspiring journey from India in a new book, “Karma and the Destiny of an Indian American Surgeon,” published by American Bazaar Books.

The American Bazaar caught up with Dr Shah to get a first hand insight into his “unplanned and serendipitous” journey from India and his continuing efforts to improve health care in India especially for the poor patients. This project, he says will promote many business and philanthropic joint ventures and on a continual basis.

Read: Sankara raises $1.3 million for one million free eye surgeries in India (October 8, 2022)

AB: What inspired you to tell the story of an Indian American surgeon?

NS: Aziz Haniffa (editor of India Abroad) and Asif Ismail (publisher of The American Bazaar) recorded my interview for Amazon TV-Trailblazers’ series — and after the interview both of them asked me to pen my story.

Over the years I had collected some 200 press stories about me and my projects. After reading those articles I decided to write the experience.

The inspiration was due to the success especially in obtaining equality for the US physicians who had graduated outside of the US and were labeled as Foreign Medical graduates (FMG).

These FMGs had passed the US exam, undertaken the US residency, passed the licensing and the board exam and were legal residents of the US. These FMGs (now known as IMG-International Medical Graduates) were overtly and covertly discriminated and were treated as second rate physicians by the American Medical Association (AMA).

This victory of gaining equality for all 240,000 IMGs (of 80 different countries) was due to our actions in the US Congress. I led the fight for equality and am grateful to the American system to address the discrimination and rectify it.

AB: You have described your journey as a migrant to America as “brave and scary.” What made it so?

NS: The journey was brave and scary as I had travelled a few times out of Poona (now Pune) but had never travelled out of India. More so there was a fear of failure in the most advanced country.

My poverty, free US travel ticket, a residency job and a chance to become a specialist made me take the risk.

AB: What can prospective immigrants from India learn from your experiences?

NS: America is a nation of laws and there are official ways to address the issues and get justice. So prospective immigrants should fearlessly take help of laws and constitution to gain justice.

AB: Could you tell us about your efforts to form AAPI and how you led Indian doctors’ fight for equality?

NS: I was president of Washington DC area’s Indian medical Association and worked to get all exiting city, state and specialty Indian medical groups to gather under one central body.

With help of some other leaders, I founded the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) mainly to help India in improving medical education, health care and medical research and also to keep up our culture and great inheritance.

Once I became AAPI president, I found out about blatant discrimination against FMGs. Among all FMGs the Indians were a major group. I approached other national groups and united them under one umbrella group.

I met with AMA officials with the complaints, but they ignored and denied any help. Finally, we got a lobbyist and fought for equality in the US congress, After about seven years of struggle the US Congress passed the equality bill and President H W Bush signed it in March 1992.

AB: Can you tell us about your early life in India and what inspired you to move to America?

NS: We were very poor. My father was a salesman in a cloth store and as a student in school as well as in the medical college I undertook many part time jobs to augment my father’s salary and survive.

After my Master of Surgery, I started a surgical practice, but most of the patients who came to me were poor. And the rich patients came to seek my help in getting to senior and experienced surgeons especially with British qualifications.

My desire was to travel to London and obtain a British degree. Due to lack of money and unpaid debts I could not go to London. A medical classmate of mine told me to go with him to appear for US medical exam.

As it was free, I took the US exam and passed. Soon after I got a residency job and a free ticket to travel to the US. So, moving to America was unplanned and serendipitous. Was it Karma and or Destiny!

AB: After a long and successful journey, what is next on the horizon?

NS: Next on horizon is to pursue the Government of India to fund for infrastructure to obtain the willing US doctors of Indian origin to augment medical education, health care and medical research.

There are 80,000 US doctors (like me) and 20,000 second generation (like my son) US doctors. We all hail from all parts of India. I believe at least 10% are very willing to serve India.

I have tried for this project for years and met with all Prime Ministers, Health Ministers and Health secretaries. I would like to take needed American expertise to improve health care in India especially for the poor patients who usually receive medical help from government hospitals.

Also, this project will promote many business and philanthropic joint ventures and on a continual basis. The US India Business Council has worked with me for this project. In a few days I will be traveling to New Delhi to try it once again.

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