When the recession was in full swing, Shirley Chi, MD ’01, GME ’02, was giving talks in the Los Angeles community about how to save money on skincare products at the drugstore. Word got out to one of the evening news anchors and the medical producer at a local ABC News affiliate. They thought saving money on skin care was something of interest to their audience.
When they first called, Chi thought there had to be a mistake.
“After all, I was just a clinical dermatologist focused on patient care,” she says “My office was in Arcadia, a family-friendly community far from the glamour and caché of Beverly Hills or Newport Beach. But, they assured me that I was the one they were looking for.”
Her first story, finding inexpensive yet effective over-the-counter acne treatments, ran in 2009.
Walking down the aisles at her local drugstore, Dr. Chi talked about what ingredients to look for and what to avoid in skin and hair care products, ranging from acne treatments to shampoo to anti-aging regimens.
“It felt strange to be followed around by a camera crew with a microphone clipped to my clothes and discussing patient concerns with a reporter whom I had only seen before on television,” Chi explains. “Afterward I went back to work like any other clinic day, not knowing that the story would garner such a positive response from their viewers, that we would tape more segments, and even do a 30-minute special down the road.”
Since then, this board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon has become an on-air advocate for patients, doing stories on topics ranging from sunscreen protection and bug bites to skin diseases.
“The experience is like a patient visit, but with millions of people at a time,” she says. “It is a gift to be able to get a message out to people who may not be able to afford a dermatologist or may not know they need to see one.”
Chi also has the opportunity to share information about available therapies, including a recent segment about the pros and cons of a relatively new laser treatment for psoriasis.
“What I really love about ABC7 is their commitment to ‘tell it, not sell it.’ In other words, although they receive a lot of pitches to do stories promoting new skincare products, lasers, or treatments, if I don’t feel that the science behind it is sound or evidence-based, I will advise them not to pursue it,” she admits.
Balancing Academics and Private Practice
Dr. Chi believes this opportunity to impact such a large number of individuals would not have presented itself if she hadn’t attended Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. After graduating from the Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME) she completed a residency in dermatology at the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University and at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, serving as chief resident during her final year.
“I had the right background—Feinberg taught me not just how to be a physician, but also how to be a good communicator,” she explains.
During one of her favorite medical school courses, Patient, Physician and Society, she learned communication skills and ethical reasoning, as well as proper attitude and conduct in the physician-patient relationship.
The faculty member leading the course, former chair of neurological surgery Leonard Cerullo, MD, also served as her mentor. Chi remembers admiring Dr. Cerullo’s ability to balance teaching with his other responsibilities and says that’s something she strives for in her life.
“I have been able to maintain that balance of academics and private practice that was modeled by my teachers at Northwestern,” she says. “Now that I have a beautiful one-year old son, life balance becomes even more important. I feel truly blessed to be able to maintain a busy clinic along with all my family responsibilities.”
Chi notes fourth-year rotations as another highlight of medical school. One particularly memorable experience occurred when the internal medicine team was baffled by a patient with a mysterious rash and requested a dermatology consult. She witnessed a dermatologist give a diagnosis without expensive lab tests or heavy equipment.
“The dermatology team strode in like a scene from a Western film,” she recalls “They examined the patient and made the diagnosis of Reiter Syndrome (a form of arthritis that can cause inflammation and pain in the joints, skin, eyes, bladder, genitals and mucus membranes) right on the spot. I was so taken by their ability to recognize a disease and diagnose an internal condition by looking at the skin that I quickly made up my mind that this was the specialty for me.”
Dr. Chi maintains a private practice in Arcadia, Calif., and teaches as a volunteer faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I always tell my students that they make me smarter,” she admits. “They are always studying and reading journals on the latest research. Just by being around them, I learn and stay on top of new information in my field.”
She also serves as the director of dermatology-resident education at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. For her dedication to teaching future doctors, Dr. Chi received the President of the United States Volunteer Service Award in 2007.
“I realized with each class and with each rotation at Northwestern that my teachers were all leaders at the forefront of their respective fields,” she says. “That sort of environment encouraged me to do my best and to try to become a leader in my profession and in my community, not just through teaching young dermatologists, but by being an outspoken advocate for my patients, as well.”
Dr. Chi has been an advocate for Northwestern, beginning to support the medical school’s scholarship program after completing her residency training.
“In the past I’ve often directed my contribution to the scholarship fund, in the hopes that we can continue to educate the best and brightest future physicians, regardless of their economic background,” she says.