March 7, 2022, 3:20 p.m. David Mitchell — Breakfast, it turns out, really is the most important meal of the day.
Brintha Vasagar, M.D., M.P.H., was a third-year resident at the Spartanburg Regional Family Medicine Residency program in Spartanburg, S.C., when she attended the AAFP’s 2015 Family Medicine Experience in Denver. At a breakfast honoring Vasagar and other recipients of the Academy’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Medical Education, she and her husband found themselves sitting at a table with strangers.
“It ended up being the biggest blessing,” she said. “We got to know everyone sitting with us and had great conversations.”
One of her newfound friends was Terry Steyer, M.D., chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, which was preparing to launch a new residency program.
“Terry turned to me and said, ‘There’s this great job. It’s not even posted yet. I think you’d be perfect for it. Hold out and come interview,’” she said. “That’s how I ended up finding out about Tidelands. It was my last interview. I went down and got to see his team and what they were planning on building.”
Vasagar got the job as associate program director at Tidelands Family Medicine Residency.
“It was just that random connection at breakfast that led to a wonderful opportunity for me,” she said. “I was able to do things that, in other places in an established program, nobody would have let the fresh grad out of residency do.”
Her accomplishments at Tidelands included helping land $1.25 million in grants to support the new program, which is in an underserved, health professional shortage area.
Vasagar’s fundraising prowess dates back to 2004 when, as a 20-year-old Georgetown University student, she raised $500,000 for tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka. Vasagar and her father were visiting the island when a 9.1-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in the region, including more than 35,000 people in Sri Lanka.
Vasagar spent two weeks volunteering at medical sites before heading back to school in Washington, D.C.
“I was incredibly bothered by what I had seen,” said Vasagar, who spoke about the disaster during briefings with members of Congress. “It wasn’t something that a lot of people were talking about, so it was a great opportunity for me to be that voice for the things that I had seen that people weren’t necessarily aware of. That event started me on this path.”
Vasagar later spent a year at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The postdoctoral research fellowship gave her an understanding of what people look for when reviewing grants. That helped her successfully apply for grants at Tidelands and again when she became program director for the Bayhealth Family Medicine Residency and medical director for Bayhealth Family Medicine in Dover, Del., in 2019.
“If I really think something is a critical program, being able to finance it is a great way to convince people that it’s the right thing to do,” said Vasagar, who helped Bayhealth secure more than $1 million in grants, including Health Resources and Services Administration funding for rural residency development. “That’s always been a part of what I bring to the table.”
The Bayhealth residency was the first training program for any medical specialty in southern/central Delaware, she said. The program welcomed its first class of eight residents in 2021 and is expected to provide more than 30,000 patient visits per year.
“In Delaware there are no medical schools,” she said, “so without that pipeline everyone in the state is feeling that crunch of not having enough doctors. That’s part of the reason some of these foundations have been so supportive of the work that we do.”
Vasagar said one of her most “impactful” experiences was being selected as a Presidential Leadership Scholar in 2017. The fellowship, founded by the Bush and Clinton foundations, is designed for mid-career leaders who share a commitment to helping solve society’s greatest challenges. Vasagar used the experience to develop a leadership and advocacy curriculum that was implemented at Tidelands and aspects of which she continues to use at Bayhealth.
“The beauty of the program is that it’s 60 leaders from around the country who are in all industries,” she said, “so it was really the first time where I had that that cross-sectional view of how to look at things differently. Now I’m friends with pilots and lawyers and people working in tech, so I have these sounding boards to say, ‘This is a health care problem that seems unsolvable. What would you do in your industry to address this?’ Having those outside perspectives has been incredibly valuable.”
Vasagar tries to pass on her passion for advocacy and leadership with her residents, who are required to complete a three-year project that involves partnering with a community organization, completing research and identifying solutions to improve the health of the community.
“We’re about two miles from Legislative Hall,” she said, “so we expect our residents to take those narratives they’ve been collecting over three years, sit down with our legislators and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve been working on for three years. Here are the stories of the patients I’ve seen and tried to help. Here’s what you could do at the policy level to really make a difference in our community.’”
Patients tell their primary care physicians things they won’t tell anyone else, which puts those physicians in a position to bring about change, she said.
“Sharing those stories in a meaningful way with tangible goals of how you can improve things for people, I think is really powerful,” Vasagar said. “That was hard for me early on, but I’ve developed that skill over time with all of these experiences when I have been asked to speak up. I had to figure out what that balance is between sharing someone else’s story, how much of myself to share and making it meaningful for people.”
March 18 is Match Day, and Vasagar is eager to find out who is in Bayhealth’s second class of residents.
“I think the group of residents really shapes the culture of a program, especially in a new program,” she said. “That’s what I’m most interested to see, how that dynamic shifts, what each unique background brings to our program and how we can continue to grow. That is the best part of my job. I can’t wait.”