A Doctor Steps into Politics
The student was the first in her family to go to college and was earning A’s in her classes. But her health was less of a success story. When she showed up at a clinic in Austin, she wasn’t eating three days a week because she couldn’t afford it, despite holding down two jobs.
“What kind of flaws exist in our system for that outcome to happen?” asked her doctor, Pritesh Gandhi, A04, M10, MG10 (MPH). That patient, and so many others Gandhi has seen—the woman who arrived with advanced colon cancer, because she hadn’t been able to afford preventive care; the patients with diabetes who ration their insulin because it’s too expensive—have motivated him to step beyond the role of physician. The internist and assistant clinical professor has announced he’s seeking a seat in Congress.
Gandhi is running for the House in the Texas 10th Congressional District, which snakes from Austin to the suburbs of Houston, and was once represented by an ambitious Congressman named Lyndon Johnson. So far, at least two other Democrats will be grappling with Gandhi for their party’s nomination next year, and a chance to face incumbent Republican Michael McCaul.
Gandhi is the associate chief medical officer at People’s Community Clinic, a federally qualified health center, and a clinical assistant professor at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas. The triple Jumbo majored in international relations and economics as an undergraduate. As a Fulbright fellow, he studied child health at urban landfill neighborhoods in India, and as a Schweitzer fellow at the School of Medicine he helped promote nutrition among low-income Boston residents. He lives in Austin with his wife and three daughters.
“As a physician, I engage with people at their most vulnerable,” Gandhi said. “Their stories don’t get heard. I feel it’s my duty to speak, and explain their message. If I didn’t use my voice to speak up for my patients, and their families, and my neighbors, I wouldn’t be living up to the full scope of my practice.”
Tufts Now recently talked with Gandhi about his step into politics.
Tufts Now: Can you talk about the role of health-care in public policy? Obviously, the Affordable Care Act remains a major issue, but what else do you think is important?
Pritesh Gandhi: There are variety of social, political, and legal determinants of health. I’m not just talking about the provision of medical services, but about housing, education, financial security—all of these affect the health of families in this country. I’d like to shine a light on how all of this intertwines. We can have a conversation about health policy changes, the kind of systemwide change that our health apparatus requires.
But the larger conversation is about how we play the long game for our children and our children’s children. For example, one of the best things to do for the health of people is to improve educational status and achievement. For every dollar invested in early childhood education, there is a “return to society” of nine dollars—a combination of reduced government spending coupled with increased economic output. If we invest in high-quality, accessible preschool education for every American child, the return on investment would be significant for the health of these children and, by extension, their families.
How did your education at Tufts affect your commitment to civic engagement?
During my time at the university, it was hammered into me that a single individual can be a change agent. As an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student at the medical school, I knew that we had a responsibility to our families, to our communities, to genuinely make this world a better place than how we entered it.
What the university does is teach its students about the kind of tools required to make that change in the world. How do we build consensus, how do we lead with conviction, how do we analyze complex policy in a way that’s grounded in reality. The best part of my education at Tufts was that it was not conceptual. It was grounded in the reality of now.
How did your experience growing up as the child of immigrants frame your world view?
My mom’s story is a little unique. Her family was living in Uganda at a time when many South Asians were expelled from Uganda, and the U.S. took my mother’s family in. A Lutheran church in Houston helped my mother’s family get on their feet, and it has always occurred to me that in their time of need, my mother’s family was not hidden in the shadows, they were seen.
My grandfather was able to open a small business and pursue the American dream. My mother graduated from college. I feel a sense of responsibility as a first-generation American, as the child of immigrants, to give back to the country that has given me so much, and ensure that others who seek to come to this country have the same chance.
How do you integrate your medical career and a political campaign?
This is my first campaign, and it is challenging to run for office as the father of three young daughters, and the associate chief at a community health center. But no amount of hours that I invest in this campaign have caused me to get tired. I’m genuinely driven by people and their stories.
There are parts of running for office that can make you feel cynical, but for me, I understand what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” I feel that the families that I meet in my clinic, and on the campaign trail, I have to fight for them today. Running for Congress is not the next step in my career—it has nothing to do with my career.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.