May 4, 2021, 12:15 p.m. David Mitchell —With undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford University, Bright Zhou, M.S., knew where he wanted to continue his training after graduation from the Stanford University School of Medicine. Zhou recently matched with the Stanford — O’Connor Family Medicine Residency in San Jose, Calif.
“I feel honored to be welcomed into this space where I’ll still be serving populations I care about and know deeply,” said Zhou, who has been working in student-run free clinics in San Jose and East Palo Alto that serve largely minority populations for nearly a decade. “I come from, or reflect, parts of that population.”
Zhou, whose parents immigrated from China, started working in the clinics as a Mandarin interpreter when he was a freshman.
“I didn’t have medical knowledge, but I did have linguistic and cultural knowledge,” he said.
Zhou was impressed by the primary care doctors who staffed the clinics.
“The coolest thing was the vast amount of knowledge the primary care physicians had about everything,” said Zhou, whose alma mater lacks a family medicine department. “At Stanford some of my classmates looked down on family medicine and said, ‘It’s all bread-and butter stuff — hypertension and diabetes.’ But it’s so much more complex than that. Primary care physicians can take care of anyone who comes in, and that’s what I want to do.”
Zhou had just 40 hours of training before beginning work as an interpreter, and he questioned whether that was enough.
“I was entrusted to be in a space that maybe I shouldn’t have been in, hearing cancer diagnoses and other important, powerful conversations as an 18-year-old,” he said.
Later, Zhou served as the San Jose clinic’s staffing manager and implemented more robust training programs for interpreters and volunteers. He also initiated a patient follow-up system and diversity recruitment efforts.
Zhou grew up speaking Mandarin with his parents. He said language and storytelling are “crucial to why I became interested in helping others.”
“It’s the classic immigrant narrative of seeing ways that language both improved our experience but also hindered us at times,” he said. “Language access is the root of a lot of immigrant health disparities. The more I can help alleviate that, that the better off patents will be.”
The O’Connor program serves a diverse patient population that includes speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin and more. Zhou has taken classes to improve his Mandarin, also speaks Spanish and is learning Korean.
“I’m pretty critical of my own Mandarin,” he said. “I want to make sure that I have the best education so I can give the best education to my patients and students.”
Zhou will be one of the panelists during a May 18 webinar for medical students featuring their peers who recently matched in family medicine. The panelists will provide application and interview tips as well as ideas about how to stand out in the Match process.
At first glance, Zhou might seem an unlikely family medicine match not only because he attended a school without a family medicine department but because the first five years of his studies were focused on archaeology.
It comes back to storytelling for Zhou, who spent the summer after his freshman year on an excavation in Turkey.
“I ended up falling in love with archaeology, which is this beautiful field that is intensely humbling,” he said. “It’s basically digging through trash, but through it you’re creating meaning and narratives and perspectives from things folks have left behind.”
The leap from digger to doctor might not be as big as you think.
“There’s an inherent process of destruction when you are trying to uncover something in archaeology,” he said. “To get to something older you have to destroy what’s above it. You have to be certain you have collected every data you can from the context you’re in before you dive deeper. That’s translatable to medicine because every test or intervention can have side effects or consequences for patients. You only order what’s necessary.”
Zhou isn’t yet sure what his practice after residency will look like, but don’t be surprised if teaching and research are in the mix. He’s been a teaching assistant for six years, has made more than a dozen conference presentations and is finishing up his latest journal article, which looks at lessons learned from a COVID-19 consult service implemented by students to answer physicians’ questions last year. The article is expected to be published later this month in Academic Medicine.
“I’m proud of all the medical students who were pulled off rotations but still wanted to provide energy and organized so many ways to help physicians and patients,” he said. “Primary care physicians were faced with this new pathology no one had ever heard of, and there were so many questions.”
Zhou was the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of the Stanford Frontline COVID-19 Consult Service, which created evidence-based literature reviews within 48 hours of questions being submitted by primary care physicians in Stanford’s network. The system included a database so others could read what was being asked and answered on topics such as personal protective equipment.
From the time students were pulled from clerkships in March until they returned in July, the team of 16 students and 13 faculty created and reviewed 87 evidence syntheses.
“In the past, if faculty had ideas they would put students into traditional roles like health coach or scribe,” he said. “Now we’re thinking more expansively because COVID broke that apart. Look at the different projects students created when they had time, flexibility and an urgent pandemic to respond to. Students can do a lot.”
Zhou’s curriculum vitae is a testament to that statement. After holding a plethora of campus and community leadership roles, this year he is serving as the student representative to the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine’s Board of Directors. But his interests go beyond medicine. In the performing arts scene, he’s a playwright, actor, curator and musician, including five years as a violist in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and the Stanford Philharmonia. Zhou, who has served as the clinical wellness chair and leader of a mental health task force for the Stanford Medical Students Association, said those interests are vital to his own health.
“I’ve had to give up some things during intense clerkships,” he said. “I’m always so impressed by how well I feel after doing the things I’m passionate about. I played the viola three to four hours a week from fifth grade up until the second year of medical school. In the year and half that I didn’t play there wasn’t a conscious difference, but the moment I started playing again I realized how restorative it had been. We have to find ways to be demanding and have some non-negotiables in life. It’s possible as a med student, and hopefully it’s possible as a resident. Music and performance — these are things that ae crucial to me.”
With such diverse interests, Zhou said it’s not surprising he’s going to be a family physician.
“Family medicine is the specialty where you’re most able to take your expertise and do what you will with it,” he said. “Everything is in your domain and within your scope of practice. Family medicine was definitely the right path for me because I’m interested in so many different things.”