By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dr. Sadia Habib, of Overlake Medical Clinic in Redmond, places the cultural needs of patients at the forefront of her mission. A practicing Muslim, she grew up in Pakistan, where she went to medical school. At first, she wanted to be an engineer, but when her mother fell ill when Habib was in her mid-teens, the experience of being “on the other end of the healthcare system” inspired Habib to aim for a medical degree. “I felt that was my calling,” she said. “In order to persevere, you have to have some motivation as to why you’re doing what you’re doing.” Habib knew that she wanted to help people. Her older sister is also a doctor — a psychiatrist — and contrary to what stereotypes might cause us to expect of a Muslim female, Habib recalled, “Growing up, I never experienced any negative issues that impacted anything I wanted to do.” Habib reminds us of the importance of paying attention to what is, in reality, a wide spectrum of cultural, religious, and individual considerations for those we meet.
Habib attended her residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. It was there that she was first exposed to the financial gap in healthcare, and the difference it makes to a person’s wellness. Habib early on became convinced of the importance of closing that gap for less privileged populations, and the importance of cultural sensitivity when caring for patients. She realized that care, or lack of care, has repercussions across society. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Habib witnessed an increase in the number of patients coming to see her that might not otherwise have been able to do so. Habib remembers a former patient who, due to the ACA, was able to get help for mental issues. “He got insurance. He got care. He got a job,” she recounts. In other words, he turned his life around. Habib acknowledges that plans of the current administration, to do away with the ACA, is concerning.
After her residency, Habib returned to the Seattle area with her husband, a plastics engineer also from Pakistan, whom she met in the United States, and who had already been working in Seattle, although he accompanied Habib to Atlanta during her residency. Once settled, Habib worked in Burien at what used to be Seahurst Internal Medicine, before becoming the first doctor to provide care at Overlake Medical Clinic in Redmond, which opened in 2012. The facility now has three on-site providers who deliver non-emergency primary care, rotating specialists in areas, such as pulmonology and cardiology, and a supporting staff. Habib’s own specialty is internal medicine, which means she deals with chronic illness, such as diabetes and heart disease. However, she operates as a primary care facilitator for adult patients (she does not see children). She is currently accepting new patients.
In her efforts to close the gap and provide culturally competent care, Habib also volunteers at the free clinic at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound once a month. Although this clinic was started by Muslims, it is not just for Muslims. “It is charity care for anyone who needs it,” Habib explained. Doctors and assistants who volunteer at the clinic are not all Muslim. “It is great to see everyone come together to help,” says Habib, who feels that the free clinic “opens doors to understanding people from across the world — of any race, color, or religion.”
Redmond’s Overlake Medical Clinic, too, is a place where patients of all backgrounds can feel safe, knowing that doctors like Habib will be attentive to their individual and cultural needs. There are many ways this might come into play. Particular to Muslim patients might be an increased need for privacy or a wish for the doctor to be of the same gender. A female Muslim patient may prefer to see Habib, rather than a male colleague. However, it may be that a female patient simply prefers a female doctor. According to Habib, there are many patients in the clinic who see a male doctor for one thing and a female doctor for another.
She also divulges that she has conservative male Muslim patients who do not mind coming to her for care. Habib stresses that a lot of patient concerns are gender-based, or cultural and not religious, so she feels competent to treat patients from various parts of Asia, due to the similar cultural standards of the region in general.
Yasmin Ali has been a patient of Habib’s for a couple of years. Ali appreciates Habib’s focus on wellness and natural health. “She’s very open to discussing treatment options,” said Ali, and Habib is willing to help her find alternatives to taking pills and is also mindful of Ali’s modesty concerns. The design of Redmond’s Overlake Medical Clinic also encourages confidence. Each exam room has both a door and a curtain — something seen more often in hospitals than clinics — to prevent anyone walking in and surprising a patient, such as a female Muslim patient who does not want to be seen without her headscarf on.
In Habib’s view, all of her patients deserve to have their concerns validated. “It doesn’t take much,” she said, to become enlightened on cultural competence. One thing a doctor might do, for example, is make sure he or she asks more questions when approaching a Muslim patient, or be more explicit in his or her explanations, especially when touching or about to touch a patient. Even something like taking care not to offer a female Muslim patient a handshake if you are a male, and vice versa, can ease a patient’s stress. Something else providers can be mindful of, is the ingredients in medications. Since Muslims do not eat pork, Habib is careful not to prescribe medications that might be made with animal products. Also, doctors should be aware of traditions, such as Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This could upset a patient’s eating and medication routine, so Habib suggests that doctors find workarounds for those types of scenarios.
Being culturally enlightened applies to colleagues, as well as customers. Habib has found it helpful for her co-workers to witness her own fasting. She laughingly tells of a colleague who decided to fast with her, to find out what it was like, and because it seemed like a good cleansing activity. “It’s helped my colleagues be more aware because I do it,” she says.
Redmond’s Overlake Medical Clinic itself is composed of a diverse staff who are trained on cultural competence. The clinic also provides translators and multilingual providers in order to breakdown language barriers. Habib herself speaks Hindi and Urdu, in addition to English.
During her time at Overlake, Habib has seen an increasing number of patients who express symptoms of anxiety or depression. Both males and females tell her of the pressures and unrealistic expectations of their jobs. “There is a lot of work stress in this community,” she said. Habib does not feel that the anxiety and depression she is encountering in her patients is new, rather she thinks that society is becoming more enlightened about discussing these issues. While men have difficulty opening up about their feelings, Asian or Muslim men often have even more difficulty doing so. “There is no acceptance of mental disorder,” in much of Asia, Habib explained, and the region is male-dominated. Women, “the weaker sex,” might be given more leeway, suggests Habib, and not in a good way. Yet it is all considered “craziness.” For those experiencing these issues, Habib insists that feelings of depression or anxiety “don’t mean you are a lesser person or that you are less functional.” It’s part of life. Mental and emotional health affect overall health. Therefore, Habib is conscientious about screening for all areas of wellness, and Overlake Medical Clinic in Redmond has a psychiatrist on staff.
Habib recognizes that the biggest challenge for most people who want to be healthy, including herself, is lack of time. She recommends a proper diet and exercise for at least 30 minutes, five times a week. “Be aware of what you are putting into your body,” she said.
Changes in diet should be lifestyle changes, Habib said, rather than going on and off different fad diets. “Make small changes over time,” she recommended. “Find something that makes you happy and is also healthy.”
Habib admits that her own family doesn’t always follow her health advice, and she doesn’t know if her 15-year-old son, Hassan, will choose a similar career. “He isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life yet. He’s mostly concerned about driving,” Habib noted. “But he’s fascinated with the field of medicine, and realizes there is a lot of hard work involved.”
Habib does notice that her son is a healthy eater. “His Halloween candy lasts him a year,” she said. Perhaps following his mother’s example!
Jessica Kai can be reached at email@example.com.