UC Davis medical student receives 2012 Physicians of Tomorrow award

August 8, 2012

Kabir Matharu, a fourth-year student at UC Davis School of Medicine, received a 2012 Physicians of Tomorrow award from the American Medical Association Foundation for his leadership and strong commitment to promoting social justice through use of the performing arts. Matharu is one of only 18 students in the nation to receive the scholarship, which recognizes academic excellence and provides $10,000 for medical school tuition.

"Kabir Matharu is using innovative approaches to improve the health of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and raise awareness of the needs of this underserved population among students and providers," said Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine at UC Davis. "His work is helping to define new approaches in health care and exemplifies our institutional commitment to improve lives and transform health care."

Kabir Matharu © UC Regents
Kabir Matharu

Since his first year of medical school, Matharu has worked with the Department of English Literature and the Department of Internal Medicine to develop a popular workshop for medical students to engage in theatrical readings. In these sessions, students dramatize scenes from literature that focus on suffering, illness or death, which enabled them to "become" characters who are different from themselves and explore situations beyond the realm of their own personal experiences. Characters range from a heartsick and dying father in Shakespeare's "King Lear" and a middle-aged woman coping with ovarian cancer in "Wit" to a gay man confronting AIDS in "Angels in America." The work of Matharu and his colleagues has been published in journals such as BMJ Medical Humanities and Literature Compass.

"We found that students, regardless of whether they acted the part of a different character or watched their peers perform, were able to understand segments of society deemed 'different,'" said Matharu. "Our work over the years has clearly demonstrated that literature and the arts have a special place in medical education."

Matharu founded a support group in 2010 that provides counseling and referrals for homeless and indigent LGBT patients in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., where he spent a year as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellow. The intent of his organization is to promote health among members who identify as LGBT or have significant others who do. People served by this clinic often have few resources for specific health and psychosocial services, and the ability to participate in the support group is especially important and therapeutic. The monthly sessions allow individuals to discuss their thoughts and concerns on sexuality and "coming out" and to address health concerns such as sexually transmitted infections, cancer, diabetes and depression.

Matharu also developed and conducted a survey among his fellow medical students to assess attitudes about gay men and their behavior, as well as issues related to civil rights and masculinity. To be published in BMC Medical Education, the study by Matharu and colleagues at UC Davis and Harvard Medical School demonstrated more negative attitudes toward gay men among male and younger medical students.

With funding from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and UC Davis, he is currently working on a project that will test whether theater can target bias against obese people.

"We've come to a point where we can apply scientific methods for assessing various forms of bias against the obese, for whom discrimination is more overt than other marginalized groups," he said.

Matharu is lead student investigator of the study, which is being conducted with colleagues at UC Irvine and Mayo Medical School.

The AMA Foundation aims to ensure the best and brightest students can access medical education by providing high-impact tuition assistance scholarships.  Medical students in the U.S. graduate with an average debt load of $162,000. A large debt burden may deter many from practicing in underserved areas or primary care medicine.
The AMA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt foundation, is dedicated to improving public health by providing philanthropic support to high-impact health and medical scholarship programs. Visit www.amafoundation.org, follow us on Facebook, or call (312) 464-4200 for more information. 

The UC Davis School of Medicine is among the nation's leading medical schools, recognized for its research and primary-care programs. The school offers fully accredited master's degree programs in public health and in informatics, and its combined M.D.-Ph.D. program is training the next generation of physician-scientists to conduct high-impact research and translate discoveries into better clinical care. Along with being a recognized leader in medical research, the school is committed to serving underserved communities and advancing rural health. For more information, visit UC Davis School of Medicine at medschool.ucdavis.edu.

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