Discourse around Asian American medical experiences has become more prevalent in recent years. While the journey is by no means done, recent initiatives at Yale, including a book and mental health talk by Jenny Wang and a trauma-healing program by Eunice Yuen, mark certain progress — or at least awareness — in empowering Asian Americans toward seeking physical and mental health treatments.

Last year, an article by the News titled “Going to the doctor when you’re Asian in America” explored the complexities of how Asian Americans experience healthcare. The piece focused on patient perspectives, noting cultural challenges which prevent Asian American individuals from seeking medical specialists and from communicating empathetically with their families. However, there is little consideration into the opposite side of the discussion: how Asian American physicians and healthcare workers navigate the medical profession. 

The case exists that Asians are already overrepresented in medicine, comprising 7 percent of the national population but 17 percent of all active physicians in 2018. More simply, as one blog post by James Allen — former medical director of Ohio State University East Hospital — asked in its title, “Why Are There So Many Asian Physicians in the U.S.?” 

Like larger discourses about affirmative action, arguments for enhancing diversity in medicine remain vague about Asian Americans. A 2001 report from the National Academy of Medicine — which focused on addressing diversity problems in the medical profession — grouped Asians with other “minorities” in its introduction. However, the report mostly omitted them in its actual discussions of institutionalized racism as medical schools — barriers which did not seem to apply to Asians, the report implied. 

The report eventually turned to using “URM,” for “under-represented minority,” to describe the challenges faced by medical professionals of color. This left Asians to be a “non under-represented minority,” an oxymoronic phrase which physician-writer Pauline Chen equated to a “gaslighting double-negative.” 

One reason why the discourse dwindles when it comes to Asian American physicians is the belief that a doctor is a “dream” profession for Asian kids. Indeed, a quick Google search with Allen’s query proliferates articles about meritocracy, financial stability and parental expectations.

“There’s definitely a very common stereotype of the Asian child pushed by their parents to go to medical school, to meet a very specific idea of success,” Sarah Ho MED ’26 said in an interview with the News. 

However, that stereotype is dying — if not dead already — for Justin Zhu MED ’24. Zhu explained that what drew him toward medicine was the feeling of mentorship: as the oldest child in his family, he had grown up teaching and playing with his two younger siblings. Later, when he started working as a physics tutor in his junior year of college, he recognized that teaching had always brought him fulfillment.

“Being able to connect with other students and be a part of their journey was really rewarding to me,” Zhu said. “In my mind, medicine was a way to do that with patients longitudinally.”

Zhu also noted that both his parents were physicians, and he grew up exposed to medicine, but he never took it for granted as a career he should pursue. 

“My parents were never like, ‘You have to do medicine,’” Zhu emphasized. “In fact, seeing some of the things that they did — working really long hours, being stressed about their job — were kind of turn-offs about medicine.’”

None of the other individuals interviewed by the News cited parental expectations or financial stability as influences toward their decision to pursue medicine, though Jason Wang ’26 posited that it may have played a subconscious role. 

Nevertheless, the perceived motivations that Asian Americans may go into medicine for “wrong” or non-altruistic reasons — parental pressure or prestige— still abound. 

One study found that reviewers of Medical Student Performance Evaluations  are more likely to characterize Asian students using “grindstone” traits — “hardworking,” “conscientious” and “diligent” — compared to white students, who prevailed in adjectives demonstrating compassion, such as “caring” and “empathy.” 

Zhu referenced a statistic that Asian American medical students tend to score lower during their clerkship years, when they are placed on clinical rotations and allowed to interact with patients firsthand.

“During that one year of hospital shadowing experience, the grades suffer,” Zhu explained. “One aspect of it is that Asian Americans can be perceived as passive, disinterested or not engaged with the team.”

With this statistic in mind, Zhu recalled having to act “extra proactive” and “go above and beyond” during his clinical rotation, speaking up whenever possible and making phone calls after rounds to connect with families. 

The struggle for proof of leadership capacity persists past graduate education for Asian Americans. Across all U.S. medical schools, the number of deans of Asian American descent has increased from zero to one in the past twenty years. In 2015, less than 1 percent of hospital chief executive officers were of Asian descent.

“I do have concerns of when I’m attending as a full doctor eventually, ‘Will I be taken as seriously as a white male counterpart?’” Ho asked. 

Like Zhu, Ho explained that medical school was never an expected path. The financial allure of a medical career has waned, noted Ho, with soaring tuition and debt costs. 

At Yale, the 2022-2023 tuition costs to attend the School of Medicine exceeded $100,000, summing to $522,723 over five years. These financial factors have fueled anxiety for prospective pre-medical students.

“There was a big fear I had [that] if I do this whole pre-med thing and go to medical school and pay so much money — what if I end up hating it?” Ho told the News. 

Ho entered college with a general interest in neuroscience, but without definitive career goals. She had been choosing between a Ph.D., M.D. or MD/Ph.D. program. It was not until she experienced the human-centric aspects of care that she felt drawn toward a career as a physician. While she was conducting an undergraduate research project that required her to meet with patients and to facilitate interviews for qualitative data collection, the opportunity for patient interaction resonated with her most deeply. 

“I liked having that chance to connect with people and learn about their life stories,” Ho said. “It was very affirming that I loved talking to people and helping them.”

Such a relationship, according to prospective pre-medical student Anjali Dhanekula ’26, is “something you can’t get anywhere else.” 

Dhanekula, who grew up watching medical television series including Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med, was initially allured by the high-drama shows. Being interested in medicine, she said, just felt like “hopping on the bandwagon” at first. 

It was not until Dhanekula shadowed a plastic surgeon, specializing in reconstructive breast surgery, that she was struck by how a doctor could change someone’s life.

“He made them look and feel as close to how they felt before their cancer,” Dhanekula explained. “And after he’d do these surgeries, he’d follow up with them again, and make more appointments and it’s just a special relationship.” 

These stories — in which individuals found value in supporting and empathizing with others — are commonly cited reasons for why people choose medicine, but rarely the perceived reason for Asian Americans.

Instead, pervading explanations argue that medical school is appealing for Asian Americans because it is meritocratic. With the academic standardization created by the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, which includes rigorous MCAT and board exams, it appears that the “best and brightest,” as measured solely by competency and grit, can be rewarded with a white coat.

“Whenever I told people that I wanted to go to medicine, it didn’t seem like it didn’t seem like they were surprised,” Dhanekula said. “It felt like they were saying, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense.’”

However, such a defense for the “studious Asian” stereotype overlooks the disparities within the 11,000 Asian individuals who apply to U.S medical schools annually. Underrepresentation remains a problem for varying ethnic groups within the Asian American community. Laotians, Cambodians and Indonesians, for instance, each make up less than 0.4 percent of these applicants. There is no public data about representation of these Asian subgroups beyond U.S. residency, either. 

Asian Americans are still vying for legitimacy in medicine, Ho reiterated. But both Ho and Zhu said they believed their cultural identities and experiences help them be more empathetic to patients, not less. More specifically, Zhu described learning the nuances of communicating with patients of non-English speaking backgrounds, while Ho said she hopes to be especially attentive toward patients who may have been socialized to be more passive or quiet with doctors.

“At the end of the day, in medicine, if you’re going to put yourself through fifteen years of med school, you’ve got to have something genuine inside of you,” Wang said.

Samantha Liu covers Community Health & Policy for the SciTech desk and serves as co-chair for the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. As a Global Health Scholar, she studies English and Molecular Biology.