Yogi Shah’s comfort with taking risks opens doors for many

Yogesh “Yogi” Shah, M.D., M.P.H.’13, FAAFM, the 2021 College of Health Sciences Alumnus of the Year, is inarguably impressive on paper. Founding director of the palliative care program at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, he now is Broadlawns’ chief medical officer, vice president of medical affairs and a member of its executive board. Triple-board-certified in geriatrics, family medicine and hospice care, he has long cared for patients, educated students and enhanced communities around the world with his public health expertise.

Yogesh “Yogi” Shah, M.D., M.P.H.’13, FAAFM
Yogesh “Yogi” Shah, M.D., M.P.H.’13, FAAFM

What’s less apparent on paper is Shah’s willingness, throughout his life and career, to take on new roles and adventures in ways that create opportunities for others as much as for himself. He grew up in Bombay, India – now called Mumbai – and landed one of the city’s approximately 1,200 medical school seats among more than 75,000 people who applied. Like many other educated Indians at the time, he emigrated to the United States after earning his degree. His visa required him to practice in an underserved area, so he chose Mount Ayr in rural Ringgold County, IA, population 5,000.

“Mumbai at the time had approximately 11 million people, so I had no concept,” he laughs. One of only two physicians in the area, he was busy immediately.

“I was well respected, got involved with the community, provided patient care and went to schools and churches to give talks about health,” he says.

Because most of his patients were 65 years old and older, he pursued a one-year geriatric fellowship, with a focus on dementia detection and care, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. That changed his path: He joined Mercy Hospital in Des Moines as a geriatrician and began teaching geriatrics at Mercy and DMU. That led to his appointment as the founding chair of the geriatrics department at the University while he continued to practice at Mercy. And that led to even more adventures: One day while he was working at the hospital, he was among the recipients of an email message from the College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM) seeking physicians willing to accompany DMU students on a health service trip in Belize.

“Not knowing at the time where Belize was, I agreed,” he says. Given rising interest among students for such experiences, then-COM Dean Kendall Reed, D.O., FACOS, FACS, told Shah he was considering creating a global health department at DMU.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. You should.’ But he said, ‘No, I’m thinking you should be the one to start that,’” Shah says. “After thinking for a few seconds, I said, ‘Sure, I will.’ I feel strongly that our health is not just related to clinical health. If we can expose students to greater global health issues, they’ll become better physicians.”

As full-time founding associate dean of global health, Shah led efforts to establish clinical rotation sites in several countries and internships for DMU students at the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pan American Health Organization. At the time, DMU was the only medical school to have access to all three organizations.

He also received a Fulbright Scholarship that sent him in 2013 – the year he completed his master of public health degree at DMU – to Kigali Health Institute in Rwanda, where he helped establish a center of excellence in palliative care training in Rwanda and neighboring African countries. In 2015, he was among the leaders of 26 academic institutions around the country who met at the White House to discuss the importance of training medical and public health students to address the health impacts of climate change.

“I can proudly say we were not only the best college of osteopathic medicine for global health experiences, but probably number-one among all medical schools,” he says. “I would meet with student groups after every global health trip. Many said it would help them be better physicians, and some students found their calling.”

His legacy endures: More than 1,060 students in DMU’s osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, physician assistant, public health and health care administration have since traveled for service trips, rotations or internships. Even during the pandemic, they participated in virtual global health projects with partnering organizations in other countries.

Shah left the University in 2016 to join Broadlawns as a geriatrician and founding director of palliative care services. He was promoted to chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs on Jan. 6, 2020, just as the coronavirus was becoming a global concern. Long aware of the threat that infectious diseases pose in a highly mobile world, he worked with the chief medical officers of central Iowa’s other major health care organizations – the Iowa Clinic, MercyOne and UnityPoint – to share information about COVID-19 and ways to mitigate its impact.

Broadlawns, long-committed to tackling health disparities and providing health care for all people, partnered with 50 local organizations to distribute bilingual educational materials, thermometers and thousands of masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in its “Win for All” program. Shah and his colleagues worked with Black community leaders and Central Iowa Shelter and Services to share information about COVID-19, build trust and dispel misinformation. To help address inequitable access to vaccines, in March 2021 Win for All hosted the first COVID-19 community vaccination clinic at a local Black church. Appointments filled in less than 48 hours; more than 1,000 people came.

“Our efforts brought out our Broadlawns teamwork, including our values of inclusion, agile leadership and serving the community,” Shah says. “We had weekly meetings with 20 people in the room. No idea was a bad idea.”

Looking back on his colorful career, from moving sight-unseen to tiny Mount Ayr, IA, and opening global doors for students to being honored by a Maasai tribe in a remote Tanzanian village, even Shah seems a bit in awe.

“If I were to summarize how it all happened, it was because I didn’t have any fear or hesitation about failure,” he says. “I’m used to being comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable, which has helped me personally and professionally and helps the community at large.”

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