The RCP’s lead for digital health, Dr Wajid Hussain FRCP, battled against low expectations throughout his childhood to eventually go on to become a consultant cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist. In this piece for South Asian Heritage Month, he talks about growing up as a first-generation immigrant from a working-class Pakistani family and the importance of ensuring anyone can become a doctor, no matter their background.
‘Have you considered the Youth Training Scheme?’
That was the advice from my careers teacher at age 13 when I told him I wanted to be a doctor. He literally laughed in my face. This was Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s – a time of depression, everything was greyer especially if you were poor and unemployed. The Youth Training Scheme was created for 16–18-year-olds who couldn't get a job and were academically unable to continue education.
I was a first-generation immigrant from a working-class Pakistani family, living in inner-city Birmingham, one of the most deprived areas in the country. I was attending a school with a long history of terrible academic performance, with most pupils leaving with little or no qualifications. I was, as a consequence, surrounded by low expectations from almost everyone – not just the careers teacher. It was difficult for anyone, except me, to imagine that I could overcome these handicaps to achieve a place at medical school.
I had always wanted to be a doctor. I have a report from when I was 7 years old saying ‘if he wants to be a good doctor, he will have to improve his handwriting’ (apologies, but my handwriting is still terrible).
As I became a nerdy teenager, I started to enjoy mathematics and computers, so I considered a career in technology. However, two things brought me back to my original career choice.
"I remember sitting in clinic, listening to him patiently explain why my father shouldn’t eat so many chapatis – I thought he was a saint and I wanted to be just like him."
Firstly, my father was suffering with – what would now be described as – multiple chronic long-term conditions. To me, as his interpreter (English to Pushto and vice versa), it was an endless round of hospital outpatient appointments and inpatient visits when he became acutely unwell.
He was cared for by a diabetologist, Professor Tony Barnett, who was incredibly kind. Despite working in a deprived area with a busy clinical workload, he was still doing translational research. I remember sitting in clinic, listening to him patiently explain why my father shouldn’t eat so many chapatis – I thought he was a saint and I wanted to be just like him. He had the rare ability (unlike many, many other doctors) to see past the poor English language and the numerous illnesses to the proud hard-working man my father had always been. I eventually worked as his senior house officer (SHO) and he was as good as he seemed to a shy teenager.
Secondly, for many Pakistani parents there is God, then there are doctors and below that there is everyone else. My parents were desperate for me to go to university, get a secure job and escape the poverty that had blighted their lives. They said I could do anything I wanted as long as I was a doctor – apparently there are many different types!
"we must show it is possible to become a doctor no matter where you start from"
The twin engines of my determination to be a kind, caring doctor and my desire to please my parents propelled me to overcome the bad careers advice and low expectations, and to navigate the system to get to medical school.
In my career ever since, I have always politely but firmly pushed away the many naysayers who seem to delight in explaining why I cannot do something. This refusal to be held back has led to a wonderful, fulfilling job as a consultant cardiologist and my interest in technology to becoming clinical director for digital health at the RCP.
How do we increase the intake from backgrounds like mine which are under-represented in medicine? Low expectations are corrosive; we must show it is possible to become a doctor no matter where you start from. However, this on its own isn’t enough, we need to push medical schools to go further and faster to recruit from diverse segments of society.
Although my father died when I was in my second year of medical school I still cherish the memory of his face glowing with pride on my first day of university. Most of all, I want others to have the same opportunity to achieve their dreams of becoming a doctor and making their loved ones proud. Medicine is brilliant, surely everyone deserves an equal chance to experience it?
Would you like to share your experience of going into medicine? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.
About South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM)
SAHM is an initiative that has been launched in the UK for the first time. It aims to raise the profile of British-South Asian History in the UK through education, arts, culture and commemoration, with the goal of helping people to better understand the diversity of present-day Britain, as well as improving levels of social cohesion between the various communities. As part of SAHM, we asked our members and other medical professionals of South Asian heritage to share their stories with us, published as part of This Doctor Can.