Get to know Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford
"I really became curious as to why there is a disproportionate impact of the burden of obesity in my community”
We are excited to introduce our senior clinical advisor, Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, a national leader in advocacy efforts around issues related to weight bias, discrimination, health equity, and access to comprehensive care. She has authored over 150 articles in peer reviewed journals including New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and Nature Medicine.
Dr. Stanford’s work focuses on addressing health disparities related to obesity, both through direct clinical care and clinical research. Get to know Dr. Stanford below.
What is your background and specialty?
I am a physician-scientist with training in internal medicine, pediatrics, and obesity medicine. I am an expert in health disparities.
What got you into healthcare?
While I was doing my Master's in Public Health 21 years ago, I worked on a lot of projects, particularly in my community, the Black community in Atlanta, and a lot of the projects were surrounding obesity and nutrition. I really became curious as to why there is a disproportionate impact of the burden of obesity in my community, and I wanted to understand the issue better—from research, epidemiology, and genetic lenses—so that I could treat individuals and work to change the narrative.
I didn't know at the time that I would end up in Obesity Medicine, because it wasn’t even a field then, but through a circuitous pathway, I was led to do the work in which I do everyday—caring for patients that are in a vulnerable group, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, as an obesity medicine physician scientist.
Do you have a story about a patient or research project that especially touched you?
When I was a 3rd year resident in internal medicine and pediatrics, I was in the latter portion of my residency, and I had been taking care of a Black woman who was probably in her mid-forties and had severe obesity.
Every three months, over the course of my residency, she would come and see me and I would give her all of these lifestyle recommendations, like, "you should be doing this, eating this, and working out this way." What I noticed, visit after visit, was that her weight was very stable. One day, I happened to run into the grocery store on my way home, and I saw my patient. She was in the line to check out, which signified to me that I had the ability to do something that basically very few people get to do: I got to access the quality of her grocery cart.
So, I glanced at the shopping cart because I wanted to know what was in there. She said to me, "see, I've done everything you told me to do." And, when I looked at her cart, it was perfect. The right balance of vegetables to lean protein, grains, etc. It was at that point that I realized how much I didn't understand or know about this disease. The presumption would have been that she was doing none of these things because if she was doing these things, she should have made some improvement. I came to rotate as a 4th year at Mass General in Obesity Medicine and learned about medication, surgery, and I was like, "what is all of this?” as they tried to explain how the brain regulates weight. I then recognized how I had been failing my patients—pushing lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle, and I presumed that if you make those adjustments, then we can solve this obesity issue. I didn't recognize that my lack of knowledge really shifted me into having some bias, and since then, I've been trying to ensure that other doctors, nurse practitioners, PAs, whoever will listen, understand how we, unfortunately, perpetuate bias within our own healthcare settings.
Of all of your years of study and research, is there any specific statistic or thing that you've learned that stayed with you?
I think that the statistic that I think is most prominent (although I think there are some flaws to the statistic itself) is that 80% of Black women are either overweight or have obesity. That number is just so high. And we, as providers, address all of the other issues, and we forget that obesity is a key issue that leads to everything else—my goal is to treat the key issue.
Do you have any awards or moments of recognition that you're especially proud of?
I received my gold congressional award in 2001, and it was presented to me by my congressman John Lewis. John had been a mentor of mine and one of the things he said to me when I received the award was, "Fatima, never stop fighting injustice.” I will challenge power in ways that power is not used to being challenged. It is part of who I am, but, when you have John Lewis ask you to promise you're not going to stop doing it, and it is already inside of you to be that person, you can imagine that tracks well.
What drives you everyday / moves you to continue working in healthcare?
I think every person was put on this earth to do something unique, and I feel that I was put here at this very time to do the work that I am doing in healthcare. There is a quote from Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, and he said, "Strive to do whatever you do well that no [person] living, no person dead and no person yet to be born can do it any better," and that’s how I think about my work. I am going to show up, and I am going to do the work so well that no one could do it any better. Because it is the work that I was specifically put here to do, like I am not doing someone else's work, I am doing my work. If I don't do it, it can't be done.
If you could do one thing to better the healthcare experience for underrepresented employees, what would you do and why?
That is a hard one. I would say, I want them to know that they matter. I think one of the key things when you are from a marginalized group, is you don't believe that you matter in the same way that others matter. If you can get people to realize their value and worth, then they think things that support that. If you don't believe that you are a person that deserves the best healthcare, you won't seek it in that way. So I think employees are unaware of their value or worth because majority groups, groups in power have made them believe they are lesser than. If you empower people to believe in themselves, it doesn't change the system, but it changes the way they interact with what I consider to be a broken system.
How did you come to be part of the Coral Health team?
Prior to the current company of Coral Health, I have been here. I helped conceive from the ground up what is now Coral Health. Coral recognizes that a commitment to minoritized individuals and communities should not be short-lived. I believe in the longevity of this work and so does Coral.
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