By Elaine Dunn | October 2021
By Elaine Dunn | October 2021
What do you want to be when you grow up? Artist. No! Dancer. Absolutely not! Teacher. Maybe. Engineer? Getting close. What response is music to a Chinese mother’s ears when she asks that question of her offspring? Doctor or lawyer! Okay, so this may be exaggerated and facetious, but I wager each of us know a Chinese mother like that!
Remember Andrew Yang? 2020 Democrat presidential candidate who made the, albeit in jest, unwoke comment, “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” in response to questions on healthcare incentives? That quip did not sit well with many. It hit a raw nerve especially within the Asian American community as it was seen as reinforcing the “model minority” stereotype. However, statistics may bear him out.
A ”Diversity in Medicine: Fact and Figures 2019” report by the Association of American Medical Colleges showed 17.1% of active physicians self-identified as Asian-Americans, second to 56.2% who self-identified as white. It also reported Asians made up the second largest racial group among and 20% of medical school faculty. Note that currently, the 22-plus million people of Asian descent who live in the U.S. represent only approximately 7% of the nation's population.
Why are there so many Asians in the medical field?
Besides pacifying and fulfilling the Chinese mother’s “American Dream,” Chinese American students tend to excel in academics and achieve professional success. Some do so as a result of strict, unyielding parental expectations, others are completely self-driven. One such young Chinese American doctor in the latter category is Janet Lee. In fact, when asked whether she felt pressured by her parents to enter the medical field, she said both her parents tried to dissuade her, knowing full well what an arduous, long journey laid ahead.
In August 2021, Lee’s long journey culminated in her being recognized as one of the “Top Doctors” by Minnesota Monthly magazine. How does one get on the “Top Doctors” list? Minnesota Monthly asks thousands of physicians from 12 counties (11 in the metro Twin Cities area and Olmsted County) one question, “If you or a loved one needed medical care, which doctor would you recommend?” Quite an honor!
Granted, Lee’s family is not your run-of-the-mill Chinese immigrant family. Both her parents are first generation immigrants from Hong Kong. Both hold advanced degrees from Yale – father has a Ph.D. in engineering, mother has a Master of Music in piano performance. Her siblings are equally accomplished: older brother with degrees in engineering and physics from the University of Minnesota, older sister with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University.
Lee’s drive manifested itself early. Whether it was beading bracelets or studying, she was very focused. Her mother said she never had to tell her to study or practice viola or piano, ever! The accomplished violist participated in string camps and quartets. By high school, she excelled in all she attempted: top of her class, top of all of her extracurricular activities, captain of the cross-country team, first chair violist in the All-State orchestra and various other local youth orchestras, captain of the math team and knowledge bowl teams.
Throughout her four years of undergraduate at Harvard University where she majored in anthropology and minored in Chinese, she stayed very involved in other activities besides academics. She made sure she would explore all other areas of interest, such as music, dancing, economics and computer science, to be sure that medicine was truly the path she wanted to take. By her sophomore year, she had narrowed her “options” down to three: doctor, primatologist or anthropologist. Medicine won out.
She applied to many medical schools, but decided to stay close to family by attending U of MN. Many of her patients are curious why she chose colon and rectal surgery. She said her interest in the workings of the gastrointestinal tract and the wide variety of related diseases intrigued her. Also, she “likes doing procedures and operate,” so something in the surgical field was a good fit.
“Once I made it into medical school, I made sure I try to learn everything that was needed and really get a feel for what life is like in all of the different specialties,” Lee said.
In April 2021, CNN stated results from a 2017 survey of 800 physicians in the U.S., “69% of Asian American doctors said they endured biased remarks and personally offensive comments from patients. Unfortunately, these interactions are all too common. They range from comments about a doctor's accent to demands to see a practitioner of a different race.” How has being Chinese impacted her experience?
There were a number of other Asians in her class, Lee said, but she did not feel they were treated any differently because of their ethnicity. However, “Being Chinese may have made it a bit more difficult to stand out amongst other Chinese students in my premed days. A lot of them come from families where their parents or siblings are doctors so they are expected to also become a doctor. They had a lot of pressure to make it into medicine. However, not all of them ended up liking it once they got into it,” Lee said.
And has being a “perpetual foreigner” affected her practice? How has her patients reacted to her ethnicity? “Patients also will lump Chinese doctors all together. They will notice my last name and say ‘Oh, are you related to Dr. Lee in xyz specialty?’ Many Minnesotan patients are always interested in what my ethnicity is, or always want to volunteer if they have a family member that is an adopted Asian, or that they've been to certain countries in Asia. Most of the time, they're just trying to be nice. Asian patients, however, never ask me if I'm Chinese. Some of my Asian patients, however, do feel like they can trust me more because they view me as family!”
How does Lee feel about being recognized by her peers for her expertise in her specialty, colon and rectal surgery? “It certainly is flattering to be recognized by your peers!”
Asked what advice she’d give to someone considering a career in medicine, Lee said, “It's important to see the kinds of people and personalities you work with in various specialties to make sure you would fit in if you went into that field. Furthermore, don't let any outside people influence your career choice or specialty, or you may end up unhappy. Go into medicine if that’s what you want to do and pick a field based on your interest and abilities. Don’t pick one because of “lifestyle” or “status,” or you may burn out or spend years of your life in a career that isn’t satisfying for you.”
Her life revolves around working long, erratic hours. A typical day for her depends on whether she’s operating or in clinic, doing minor procedures or doing colonoscopies. She’s usually at the hospital by 7 a.m. for surgery or rounds. Sometimes, she’s done by 4 or 5 p.m. and, sometimes, 7-8 p.m., or even later. Usually there are two or three days a week with operating time and at least one full day of clinic. She’s also on call one or two nights a week and one full weekend per month.
Balancing time between work, home/family (she has an 8-month-old son) and spending time on herself and her interests sometimes become a juggling act. She’s thankful to have a great support system in her husband (who is supportive and flexible), family and friends, especially at times when she’s stuck at work! Knowing what she knows now, would she change anything?
“Yes, I would still choose to be a doctor, although if I had known about COVID, it might have been nice to have a career where I could work from home!” she said.
New medical school graduate Janet Lee with proud parents Evelyn and David
Lee with husband Brian and baby son Evans