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Q&A With Kiran Shokar, Chair of Population Health

Feb. 25, 2021

Navkiran “Kiran” K. Shokar, M.D., M.P.H., will begin serving as associate dean for Community Affairs, chair of the Department of Population Health, and professor of Population Health at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin in May 2021. In more than 20 years in academic medicine, she has worked as a family medicine physician, educator and clinical researcher. Her research interests include interventions in cancer prevention and control, shared decision-making and community-based research to address cancer health disparities among underserved populations. She has also developed innovative population health approaches to bridge the divide between communities, the health care delivery system and public health.

Below, Shokar answers questions about her new Dell Med role:

You have a long and distinguished career as a clinician scientist, public health expert and researcher. What attracted you to Dell Med and UT Austin?

I was attracted by Dell Medical School’s mission and vision and was refreshed to see UT Austin prioritizing the transformation of medical education and health care delivery. Anyone involved with health care knows that the system needs work if we want to help people truly maximize their health. And when I met the Dell Med team, I was excited to see the school’s vision extend beyond a few words on a page: It was a living, breathing reality thriving in a culture that supports innovation, creativity and a can-do attitude.

Another important factor for me was how Dell Med values community partnerships to advance the school’s mission. I clearly saw for myself the involvement with community organizations and the many benefits stemming from these partnerships. These relationships are so vital for transformation efforts and for Austin to achieve its ambitious goal of becoming a “model” healthy city. The final factor for me was the privilege of returning to The University of Texas. As a UT alumna, it’s an honor to serve in a leadership role at Dell Med and work with world-class experts throughout the university system. After seeing one of my daughters graduate from UT Austin and my second daughter embark on her UT experience, I am equally as excited to harness the enthusiasm and skills of the impressive student body here. Hook ‘em!

Your work here will be two-fold — leading the Department of Population Health, and playing a leading role in school’s Community Affairs efforts. How is this work related?

Dell Med’s Department of Population Health is unique in its very existence, and it serves to unite different sets of experts who are not often associated together. This integration fosters collaborations that are necessary to improve the health of entire populations. This model may also prove useful in health improvement approaches at the regional and city levels.

My role in the department is to lead and support all of its diverse divisions, including Family and Community Medicine; Community Engagement and Health Equity; Global Health; Health Informatics, Data Analytic Sciences and Epidemiology, as well as other education and research programs and centers. In my still-evolving role as associate dean of Community Affairs, community engagement and relationship-building will be imperative. It is vital not only to continue to nurture and maintain trusting, open and mutually beneficial relationships with our current community partners, but also to seek out new partnerships with those not yet engaged with the school. The second major component will be to actively work on matching community needs with Dell Med expertise to further enhance Dell Med’s contributions. Lastly, in this role, I will ensure that the partnerships between Dell Med, individuals and community organizations are guided by best practices in community research, programs and education.

What excites you about this opportunity?

I am most excited to have the license to both think differently and do differently. With support from Dean Clay Johnston and the leadership team, there is clearly an expectation to be innovative and to think creatively and collaboratively about delivering better health opportunities . The environment here is primed for innovation: The culture of the medical school supports it, and we already have world-class experts in diverse fields across Dell Med and UT, as well as an impressive array of stakeholders passionately committed to working together to tackle health. And importantly, there is significant growth and expansion in Austin of startups and technology companies that we can partner with to better deploy 21st century tools to achieve better health. What a great opportunity!

What are some of the challenges you expect to encounter and what insights are you bringing with you that will inform your efforts here?

There are always challenges related to thinking big, and I have learned some valuable lessons over the years. First, difficult problems are best solved by diverse teams, not individuals. If a single person had all the answers, the problems would have already been solved! A collaborative approach requires mutual respect for others’ contributions and experiences, and for everyone involved to check their egos at the door. As a leader, it is important to model this. Second, building trust among members of a large team takes time, commitment and patience. Third, failure is unfortunately an inevitable part of the process. But it’s our response to failure that ultimately determines the outcomes, not the failure itself. Bouncing back is important! Finally, you must have people on the team who passionately believe in the work they are doing — only then will team members show the required persistence, gladly weathering any storm.

How will your work at Dell Med benefit the people of Travis County?

I believe in creating convenient and accessible health opportunities wherever people live, work and play. We know that 80% of health happens outside the health system, and social determinants and individual behaviors are more involved than previously thought. Solutions going forward will require new thinking about how the health system, the community, public health and academia can collaboratively support all individuals living in Travis County in reaching their own health goals. I aim to bring insights and expertise from my prior experience creating collaborative solutions across sectors to the work already happening in Travis County. Although as a primary care physician I am interested in health promotion, disease prevention and chronic disease management, much of my prior work is in cancer prevention and early detection. I am especially saddened to see that cancer is the leading killer in Travis County, and I’m looking forward to joining forces with the many local leaders and organizations already working to address this issue.

What’s something people might not know about you?

I am a massive soccer fan and used to play when I was younger. My childhood team is the Liverpool Football Club. In the summer of 2020, they became champions of the English Premier League for the first time in 30 years. That was one positive thing that happened in 2020. It was an especially bittersweet moment because none of the fans could celebrate together due to the pandemic — particularly poignant because Liverpool’s anthem is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” yet most people in 2020 were doing exactly that. One day, when this is all over, the fans will celebrate together with them. Knowing I am a soccer fan, you can imagine how thrilled I am to arrive in Austin at a time when the new Major League Soccer team, Austin FC, will be playing its first season. It just tickles me that we will both be starting our “inaugural season” together! We will certainly be rooting for them and for the USL team Austin Bold (except for when they play our beloved El Paso Locos, of course!).