When Dr. Jennifer Peña joined Nurx earlier this year as our Chief Medical Officer it immediately felt like she’d been here since the beginning. She’s a true telemedicine pioneer who is passionate about making high-quality healthcare more accessible, especially to people who’ve faced barriers to care, so it’s no surprise she fits right in with our medical team!
Dr. Peña (actually, you can call her Dr. Jen) was born and raised in Puerto Rico, is an Army veteran, is married to an active duty Army surgeon, has five rescue dogs (she calls herself a “failed foster parent”). She has a whole lot to say about gender equity in medicine, why she loves telemedicine, and what YOU should be doing to take care of yourself.
When did you decide to become a doctor?
I wasn’t one of those people who always dreamed of working in medicine. I went to college at Yale and was a Spanish major, but as a work study job I took a role as a medical interpreter at the university hospital. So that really immersed me in medicine and I saw that there was such a need for Spanish-speaking providers. Medical interpreting is much more than just translating; there is a cultural component too, which is really important when people are going through medical challenges. I realized that as a bilingual provider I could bridge the gap so I did a second major in molecular molecular, cellular and developmental biology to meet the pre-med requirements and apply to medical school.
Did you face any challenges as a woman of color entering medicine?
I did encounter some friction at times. When I applied to med school in 2003 many US med schools were less than half female. One of the reasons I chose my med school, University of Pittsburgh, was that one of the deans at the time, Dr. Edward Curtis, was a huge advocate for women and under-represented minorities.
Today women make up more than 50% of med students, but there is still an underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM, and especially women of color. I think it starts with a lack of exposure starting when little girls are in grade school. It shouldn’t have taken until I got to college for me to realize that being a doctor was a possibility for me.
Why did you choose internal medicine as your area of focus?
People ask me that a lot, and I answer that internal medicine doctors have to be experts in so much, and know the pathophysiology of everything and I was drawn to that.
How did you wind up in telemedicine?
I had been practicing telemedicine throughout my career, way before it was a hot topic, as an Army doctor providing virtual care to soldiers on the front lines, then to our nation’s leaders when I worked at the White House Medical Unit. I became comfortable using remote diagnostics and communicating with those patients using technology.
Then for my first job outside of the military I wanted a role that allowed me to work from home because my husband was deployed at the time, so my interest in telehealth combined with that very real lifestyle need. At the time people were mostly using telehealth as a transactional band-aid, to get a Tamiflu prescription or one-time advice on whether they should go to the ER for a sprained ankle, and that sort of thing. But I got so excited about the potential to provide high-quality ongoing, primary care via telehealth and create a real relationship with patients. Telehealth is not just vending machine medicine — you can actually create an ongoing primary care model outside of a brick-and-mortar setting.
How can telemedicine providers like Nurx expand access to care for people who have faced barriers?
It’s the most important tool for improving access that I have seen in all of my career. The healthcare arena in this country is complicated, and expensive, and a lot of people are not knowledgeable in how to get care, but most people have a telephone of some kind and they know how to use it so a way to use something they use every day to get access to something as complex as healthcare. Telemedicine really can be the bridge to a lot of underserved communities, and helps everybody take better care of themselves. It removes the barriers of time off of work, driving, who is going to take care of the kids.
Telemedicine wIll continue to transform the delivery of medicine in this country, for everybody. It’s exciting to think how much more can be provided, as we continue to develop remote monitoring, video capabilities, and more — the possibilities are endless.
What do you tell people who see telemedicine as “less than” in-person?
Of course there are certain things that you have to examine a patient for in-person, but for everything that doesn’t involve a hands-on physical exam telemedicine is in many cases a better choice. I find that I deliver better care through telemedicine, because you have more unadulterated time with your patient, and can establish an as good or better connection.
People feel so nervous and apprehensive about that annual physical once a year. It might fall on a day when there’s a lot else going on in their lives and they’re stressed or distracted. But with telemedicine the patient is not as stressed or rushed, and I always feel like the patients come prepared, are most empowered to ask questions, and more engaged with their care. With the asynchronous care Nurx provides, it’s much easier for them to ask follow-up questions — they don’t have to make an appointment or get somebody on the phone to share what they’re experiencing and get the advice they need. Removing the barriers to follow-up really does improve health outcomes.
What do you wish Nurx patients, and everybody, knew about their health?
Prevention is the most important thing—so many things are easy to treat if they’re caught early but dangerous if they’re caught late. As medical providers we need to do a good job of educating people on what is recommended. For example, the CDC recently recommended that every adult be tested for Hepatitis C at least once. That one is personal to me, because I lost somebody close to me who had Hep C and wound up having cirrhosis and cancer. She was young and it was preventable. So that’s my message to patients, and everybody: Stay on top of your tests, and get the checks that are recommended for your age and risk factors — whether that’s an HPV test, colon cancer screening, STI tests. Use telehealth and all the tools at your disposal to take care of yourself in a preventive way so you don’t have to do reactionary medicine and deal with repercussions of undiagnosed conditions.