Graduation speaker says medical students have many routes to making difference
The commissioner of Social Services will speak at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine's commencement.
To students in the Class of 2023 at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), their career paths may seem clearly defined. They learned of their residency specialties and locations in March, and after the pomp and circumstance of graduation, they will embark on their futures.
Danny Avula wants the students to realize their work may take unexpected detours but they are well-prepared for the journey ahead. Avula, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services and a physician board certified in pediatrics and preventive medicine, will be VTCSOM’s graduation speaker on May 6 at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke.
“I want the students to consider who you are, what are your gifts, and what are the best ways you can contribute to the wholeness of society. Clinical medicine is not the only path,” he said. “The training we’ve done opens the door to so many different paths. You can pursue research. You can advocate for meaningful policy. The knowledge, expertise, and credibility we have as physicians gives us a significant voice, and we can make a real difference.”
Avula’s voice has been heard promoting the well-being of children and families across the commonwealth since he was appointed commissioner in February 2022 by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. He brings a unique focus on child health as a pediatrician. He is the former health director of the Richmond City and Henrico County health departments, where he served for nearly 13 years.
“We are thrilled to have Dr. Avula speak with our graduating class and share his journey in medicine and in public health,” said Lee Learman, dean of the school. “Throughout their time at VTCSOM, our students learn the importance of service and the commitment to improving the health and well-being of our communities. Dr. Avula’s experiences demonstrate how a physician’s positive impact can go beyond the hospital or doctor’s office.”
Avula did not plan to pursue work in public health or social services initially.
“Growing up as an Indian kid in this country, I knew as early as middle school that I wanted to be a physician. I was singularly focused on that pursuit, graduating high school at 16 and college at 19,” he said. “But when I started my clinical rotations during my third year of medical school, I realized I didn’t want to solely see patients for the rest of my career. It led me to think more broadly about the difference I wanted to make as a physician and how I could use my knowledge and skills to have an impact beyond the individual doctor-patient relationship.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Avula earned his medical degree from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine. He completed residencies at VCU and Johns Hopkins University, where he also earned a Master of Public Health.
To explore different paths in medicine, he pursued various nontraditional rotations - he traveled to do global health work in Africa, worked on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded community asthma intervention, and created rotations at the state and local health departments. Through that work, he found his calling.
“In that individual patient interaction as a physician, there’s an amazing opportunity to help people. But in working with predominantly low-income households, I learned about determinants of health that are often beyond the individual,” he said. “Seeing how access to housing, medical services, and healthy foods affect individuals’ well-being really helped me discover how you can intervene at a structural level to improve outcomes.”
In January 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Avula to lead the commonwealth’s COVID-19 vaccination effort. Avula said the campaign brought Virginia from 50th in the country in vaccine uptake to the top 10.
“It was by far the most intense season of my career,” he said. “But it was probably the most impactful and meaningful work I’ll ever do. Really gratifying work.”
Cynthia Morrow, the co-leader of VTCSOM’s Health Systems Science and Interprofessional Practice domain, has worked with Avula through her role as health director for the Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) Roanoke City and Alleghany Health District.
“Dr. Avula epitomizes what it is to be an excellent physician. He is a brilliant, kind, thoughtful leader dedicated to serving Virginians. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he bravely stepped in to oversee the state’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts, an extraordinarily challenging role to take on at a time when the demand for vaccines overwhelmingly exceeded supply,” she said. “In this role, he steadfastly made clear, through his words and actions, that he lived VDH’s mission of protecting and promoting the health of all Virginians. I believe that as commissioner for social services, Dr. Avula will lead dramatic improvements in the health of children and their families.”
Avula said one of the most troublesome changes in public health spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the public’s lack of trust in institutions and the way misinformation can spread rapidly through social media. He said that no matter what direction the VTCSOM graduates follow, it is important for them to share their knowledge and expertise for the public good.
“Physicians have historically been the most trusted source for accurate health information. Now, people are just as likely to believe what they read on Twitter. … We have to restore the community’s trust in science and in our profession, and that means engaging in the public square,” he said. “There are so many places where the physician voice can make a meaningful difference.”