Columbia University Medical Center

P&S Class of 2017: Hana Ali

A desire to support underserved individuals has guided and motivated Hana Ali, MD’17, for nearly a decade.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Dr. Ali balanced her premed coursework with volunteering at the Women’s Resource Center, where she was a GED tutor for women convicted of drug-related offenses. Partway through college, a personal event spurred her to learn more about psychiatry and mental illness: a loved one was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.

Studying the biological mechanisms of addiction and mental illness was powerful. “That opened the door for me to understand addiction as a brain disorder, and it really helped me relate to the women I had been tutoring. I actually adapted the GED class and began teaching [the science of addiction] to those women. They loved it, and I loved teaching it.”

After she graduated, Dr. Ali wanted to work with underserved populations and help improve access to health care. She spent the next two years at Montefiore Hospital, where she helped individuals with mental health and substance use problems. As a case manager, she managed their social welfare needs and learned to navigate the mental health care system in New York City.

Her experience at Montefiore was challenging and rewarding, and she enjoyed working directly with people. But realizing “the science part of me wasn’t being fulfilled,” she returned her focus to medical school and applied to P&S.

“I feel like P&S was the perfect choice for me: I wanted to stay in New York City and continue working with the same populations I did as a case manager,” she says. Some of this continuity has come through her involvement in the P&S student-run clinic CUHRON, which provides basic medical care and outreach on harm-reduction services.

When Dr. Ali thinks back on the past four years, the experiences in the hospital are what stand out most, especially times when she stayed an extra hour with patients to build a connection. As a medical student, she says, “you can take the time to chat with them and their families. You can establish really strong relationships that carry over into patient care.”

The daughter of Sudanese immigrants, Dr. Ali also brings a cultural awareness to her interactions. In one case, she recalls evaluating a child with a condition typically related to extreme dehydration. As her team brainstormed the cause, she realized the patient may have been fasting because of Ramadan, which could have led to her symptoms. Dr. Ali is a fluent Arabic speaker as well, which she says has already proved useful in the clinic.

Dr. Ali’s next stop is Yale, where she will begin her residency in the psychiatry program. Emergency psychiatry captivates her in particular: “It’s a really cool portal into the rest of the health care system.” Ultimately, she plans to treat patients while also performing clinical or public health research, holding steady on her course to improve health systems and mental health outcomes.