How Sumi Does It

By Artina Dozier-Gage

Schweitzer Fellow Sumi Dey’s humanitarian work through her project How to Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy in Underserved Populations in Detroit has had so much success with increasing vaccination rates right here in our community at Popoff Family Health Center that has some of our physicians and public health professionals here at Authority Health wanting to know just how she did it.

In 2021, during the time that the global pandemic was still in full swing Sumi was accepted as a Schweitzer Fellow in Detroit’s chapter to further pursue her work in public health. Sumi’s objective was to help overcome vaccine hesitancy, which she felt would help to curtail the current pandemic brought on by COVID-19 and also help to prevent a new pandemic caused by some other preventable disease by increasing patients’ knowledge and awareness surrounding vaccines in general and increasing the rate of vaccinations received by those who live in underserved communities.

By utilizing the Michigan Care Empowerment Registry (MICIR) a site that has individual data on who has had vaccinations of any kind spanning their entire lives Sumi was able to take that information and correlate it with individual health records to help make the case for those who suffer from comorbidity, i.e. having more than one disease at the same time, such as someone diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension to get vaccinated against flu, shingles, and yes COVID-19.

Sumi first focuses on patients who have had already scheduled to get their first dose of the COVID vaccine, feeling that they apparently “already trust vaccines, the health systems and our science” to some extent. Her regular practice is to inquire about whether her patient has received other available vaccines outside of the ones for COVID and explain to them “why it is so important” to be vaccinated against various other viruses. She would give her patients who have been diagnosed with multimorbidity, such as obesity and diabetes scenarios that reminded them of how their weakened immune system often makes them more susceptible to contracting viruses, such as shingles for example. She would take the time to explain that these types of viruses attack people when their immune system is weak which could result in them becoming could very ill; she would then remind her patients of the fact that many “hospitals are already overrun due to COVID-19 and may not have a spot for them if they contract something like shingles or pneumonia and get really sick.” Sumi shared with me the opened-ended questions that should respectfully ask her patients during these conversations. For example, she would say to her patients, “Why don’t you prevent this by getting the pneumonia vaccine to protect yourself against a virus that is completely preventable?” Sumi says that she knows that all of her patients won’t agree at that moment, but that she has a good sense that, vaccine hesitancy with those patients decreased from 100% to 50% because they are now actually considering being vaccinated.

While it’s true that Sumi began her fellowship work on Detroit’s Eastside at Popoff, she was certainly no stranger to the work of a public health worker providing care for vulnerable and underserved populations. Sumi was born and raised in Bangladesh, a country located in South Asia; and, not unlike here in the US large groups of people and communities are left underserved and lack access to quality healthcare and education making them prone to misinformation. Sumi was fortunate that she had a supportive family that included her grandfather who was also a physician whose practiced focused on treating the poor and underserved communities. It was in fact Sumi’s grandfather who served as her primary role model for pursuing medicine.  Following the path of her grandfather, Sumi was able to secure the level of education that allowed her to become a medical physician and went on to use her medical education and position as a practicing physician to educate vulnerable communities in Bangladesh. The skills and experiences she gained while working with communities in Bangladesh have transferred very well to the population that she currently serves in Detroit.

There’s something else beyond Sumi’s background that makes her especially capable and successful at her work in public health. She has a way with people that facilitates trust and mutual respect. Everything from her posture or physical position in a space while talking with her patients to the tone of her voice, which is calming and soft, yet also has an assured and somehow unyielding quality to it that at once gives the feeling that this person knows what she’s talking about—the unbiased facts and is simply sharing them. However, it’s not just that. Sumi also puts into practice another special quality, that is to listen to her patients. I mean, to really listen. And, to do so respectfully and without judgement.

Sumi often refers to her style and approach in working with patients and members of the community as active listening, a communication skill designed to encourage respect and understanding between those in dialogue. It is through her approach to communicating with her patients that Sumi has seen the vaccination rate go up at Popoff by 25%, a large increase by any standard. Sumi’s currently working towards detailing her work in a medical manuscript for submission to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine because as she explained, it’s very important for all of us know “what is working.” Dr. Hassan Saghir, Associate Program Director at Popoff agrees and just recently accepted Sumi in Authority Health’s Family Medicine Residency program.

Suffice to say that providing patient-centered care, listening to patients, creating spaces where mutual respect thrives, and building trust is what’s working.