August 23, 2018

Feranmi Okanlami, MD, MS: Shifting paradigms

Faculty’s passions create opportunity for cultural change

As few as 2.7 percent of Americans living with a disability are practicing physicians. University of Michigan Medical School alumnus Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., M.S., is one of them. He returned to Michigan in February for three faculty appointments: Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Director of Medical Student Programs in the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion.

Dr. Okanlami is also one of the physicians featured in our department of Family Medicine’s campaign #DocsWithDisabilities, which he often tweets about along with his own catch phrase #DisabusingDisability. He is already making great strides in developing an inclusive and adaptive sports program here at Michigan. Here, Dr. Okanlami answers seven questions about being back, his vision for the future and how he is just getting started.

What do your faculty roles entail?

This multifaceted appointment gives me the opportunity to have my foot, or wheel, in multiple different spheres. In my clinical role, I am a full scope primary care provider, seeing patients from children all the way up to adults. In the department of Family Medicine, we're also trying to create a center or institute for disability access in medicine, and I will be working to create a clinic that caters to individuals with disabilities, specifically physical disabilities.

In the department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, I will serve as a peer mentor of sorts, interacting with patients not only as a provider, but also as a patient with a disability; specifically as an individual with a spinal cord injury who is still independent and active. It’s going to be an interesting balance of being able to provide clinical context as a provider, but then also the motivational/inspirational context from a patient standpoint, too. My goal will be to work with patients to find ways to optimize the function and abilities they do have, rather than limiting them based on their disability. By leveraging the wealth of knowledge and resources we have across the campus from Engineering to Athletics to Medicine, and everything in between, we are equipped to provide opportunities for patients they may have never realized existed themselves. Which brings me to the topic of the adaptive sports program. Physical activity is important for everyone’s physical and mental health, whether you are an 8 year old with cerebral palsy, a 58 year old with diabetes and hip arthritis, or an 18 year old Paralympian with a limb amputation. By creating an Adaptive Sports Program here, we would be combining the wealth of knowledge and resources mentioned earlier to provide inclusive and accessible sport and physical fitness opportunities for everyone.

My role in The Office for Health Equity and Inclusion is to support the medical students regarding their well-being, professional development, transition to the wards, taking their boards, applying into residency, etc. We will support and create programs focused on improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion throughout the pipeline, working with the OHEI-sponsored student organizations while serving as a resource for all students; hoping to create an environment where everyone can feel valued and thrive.

What has it been like returning as a faculty member vs. student?

It's great to be back here. I am meeting with different people, all the different deans, M-Home directors, the class counselors, the admissions office. Every day I meet new people, trying to get a sense of what is already happening here. How do people interact with the students, what are their different roles, and most importantly, trying to hear directly from the students themselves in order to learn what they need, and how they feel we can improve.

Also, I was heavily involved in lots of different things as a student here. One of the things that allowed me to get to know the faculty was the Smoker, which I was involved with all four years, being lucky enough to be chosen as a director czar in my fourth year. Because of that, there are a lot of faculty that I know because we cast them in the show every year. I would get to know their names and faces even if I didn't work directly with them. So I feel like I already know all about their lives because we roasted them year after year. It's also an exciting and worrisome place to be now as one of the faculty. I am eager to be roasted/“smoked,” and while I’d consider it an honor, having been on the other side of it, I am also somewhat terrified of what they would do.

In what capacity do you interact with medical students now?

I have an open door/email/message policy with students that they can always contact me to schedule time to talk. I'm in what I call my "information acquisition" phase right now, so I am still just trying to get a sense of what is actually happening and what the students feel they need, hoping to eventually demonstrate that those needs are actually being heard and met by OHEI.

The MD curriculum is different than when you were here. What do you think of the changes?

I think that from what I have seen, the institution, the Medical School, the faculty are doing a wonderful job trying to provide as much information as they can to the students, while being honest and realistic as well about how this is somewhat of an experiment. I think what they're doing is great and I am looking forward to learning more about it. Michigan is always striving to provide the best for their students, and while the curriculum may continue to change form, that fact remains a constant. I felt it when I was a student, I feel it now, and I hope to contribute to maintaining that feeling for years to come.

What do you see as your overall mission in your new roles?

Part of my mission is demonstrating the fact that diversity comes in many sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities. People usually first think about race when they hear diversity, but there is so much more than that. As physicians, we have a unique opportunity to be able to take care of people when they're at their best and at their worst. If we don't have the ability to empathize with people from all different groups with different abilities and disabilities and beliefs and cultures, then we're not going to be able to care for the increasingly diverse populations we will serve as best as possible. Given the limited time we have to teach students so many important things, it will be impossible to replicate every potential scenario they may encounter throughout their careers. However, if I can teach them to start with the understanding that we are all equal, instill in them that everyone deserves the same level of respect and dignity that they’d want for themselves, and train them to treat everyone that way - patients, families, nurses, janitors, faculty - then I will feel as though I have given them the foundation they need to be competent and compassionate physicians.

My other hope is that by showing medical students that not only is it okay to be human as a patient, it is also okay to be human as a provider, and that there is really no difference between patient and provider. Even as providers ourselves, we are all still someone else’s patient. How are we supposed to be able to talk to patients and tell them it's okay, that life can still go on, while creating a culture where the providers themselves must come across as immune to the same ailments we treat our patients for? My goal is trying to demonstrate to them, through one lens of disability, that we are all going to have our difficulties and our struggles and that's what makes you human, and believe it or not, sometimes your patients will value seeing the human in you.

What do you like to do like outside of work?

I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a seven-year-old son, Alexander, who was born right here (delivered by another former Smoker Czar, actually)! I love playing sports. I love watching sports. I love music and art in all forms: dance, singing, theater. I like to explore different things when I have the opportunity, but a lot of my time right now is trying to carve out my niche here, so it ends up looking like a lot of work. I often tell students to “find and follow your passions, and make those passion your professions.” By doing that, it doesn't feel like work when I get to connect with people and have wonderful conversations about how we are hoping to change the world.

What are you looking forward to next?

Michigan is already working on becoming a national and world leader in disability access in medicine behind the great efforts of faculty like Dr. Philip Zazove, Dr. Michelle Meade, Dr. Mike McKee, Dr. Lisa Meeks, Dr. Justine Wu, and Dr. Elham Mahmoudi, and the collective efforts of the Departments of Family Medicine and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Our goal is to create a health system and an institution that is both inclusive and accessible to patients and providers of all types. As I mentioned earlier, I hope to carve out my own niche here, demonstrating the importance of diversity and inclusion through creating accessibility in sports. You can have a disability whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are Christian or Muslim, whether you are white or black, whether you are lesbian, gay, bi, transgender - it is ubiquitous. Just like the importance of friendship, teamwork, collaboration, perseverance, and good health. The intersection of Disability and Sport, especially here at Michigan, is something that can bring us all together, especially at a time when it seems like we look for reasons to split us apart.

This is still new and evolving, so there is a lot of work to be done, but I have the support of Dr. Rob Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion & Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan and Dr. David Brown of OHEI, as well as Dr. Philip Zazove and Dr. Edward Hurvitz, my chairs in Family Medicine and PM&R, respectively. With their help, we have begun to gather support from various chairs across the health system and deans across the institution, and I’m currently in the process of trying to arrange a meeting with Coach Jim Harbaugh, so if you read this Coach Harbaugh, let’s make it happen!

Go Blue!