Leaders in Medical Education

Leaders in Medical Education - Dr. Rishi Desai, Head of Medical Partnerships at Khan Academy

Vishal Punwani
Published on Jun 24, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

Dr. Rishi Desai is a Pediatric Infectious Disease Attending Physician at Stanford Hospital, and is the Head of Medical Partnerships at Khan Academy. He received his MD from UCSF, before completing his pediatric residency with Harvard Medical School at the Boston Children's Hospital. Following that, he received his MPH from UCLA. Dr. Desai is an exceptional public speaker and communicator, and his work with Khan Academy has allowed millions of people across the globe to easily understand complex topics in health and medicine.

How did you become interested in medicine?
If I were being honest, it was probably an idea that first popped in my head quite randomly. When I was 3 years old the goal was to be Santa Claus, and once that it became clear that the role wouldn’t be available for a long time, I switched over to medicine. In all seriousness, I think that the idea began to mature into a reality when I got to college and spent time studying the sciences and patrolling the hospital as a volunteer.

Can you share your background on how you got to where you are right now? How was the transition from a purely clinical role to a combined clinical and academic role?
I spent two years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) working on research projects and writing up papers. I started thinking a lot about how we communicate science and the idea led me to creating YouTube videos on clinical topics (e.g. What is Strep throat?). Ultimately, I came to Khan Academy with the help of Roger Glass, a friend and mentor, who has been a real guiding light for me.

You work as the Health & Medicine Lead at Khan Academy. I can’t tell you how impactful your content has been to so many students, particularly medical students, around the world. Was this your vision for setting up health and medicine content at Khan Academy?
To be honest, the vision was fairly simple. I wanted folks to see the beautiful way that our bodies work, and what happens when things go awry. All of that gets complicated with lots of terminology and detail, but if we peel back the jargon, there are really clear ideas that anyone can understand. I wanted anyone to feel like they could understand health and medicine, because they can.

You completed a pediatrics residency and a fellowship in infectious diseases. What were some memorable learning moments you had as a resident and fellow? What were some ways you would have liked to have learned differently?
I think I would have enjoyed doing more things in a hands-on way. I spent four weeks in a pediatric hospital in Lesotho. If you’re not sure where that is, you’re not alone – I had to look it up on a map before I agreed to go! I learned more in those 4 weeks then I did in any other month of training because I was directly responsible for the care of the patients that came to that clinic. It was a huge honor and the local physicians and surgeons taught me a lot!

What are 2-3 changes you’d like to see implemented in the US healthcare system?
I want to live in a world where anyone can rest at night and not worry about being able to afford quality healthcare. In fact, I would say the same about quality education. I think that a healthy body and a growing mind are things that we should aim to provide for every member of society.

How do you think we can drive the adoption of new technologies in the US healthcare system?
New technologies are tools that should make our lives better. If using an electronic medical record system is alienating doctors from patients or if new radiologic equipment is being overused and causing unforeseen diseases, then we need to hit the “pause” button. Ultimately, I am confident in the strength and wisdom of people, and I believe that we will continue to find new tools (and new ways of using existing tools) to enhance our lives. If something isn’t working, then we just need to get even more creative and adapt.

Do you have any final thoughts regarding the medical profession as a whole?
Things are changing rapidly and I think that the biggest pool of untapped wisdom comes from patient’s themselves. I think that a well-informed patient will be in the driver’s seat of his or her own health very soon. This is already happening in many subtle ways, and it will continue to be one of the biggest shifts in the next decade.