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Brian Kaplun

Brian Kaplun, '18, MS '18

Advocating for patients and policy change

I've wanted to be a doctor ever since I was a kid, but it was an experience as a research assistant at Children's Hospital Los Angeles right before coming to Stanford that showed me there is more to healthcare than a doctor's visit. There, I met a small boy who had gone blind due to his family's lack of consistent access to healthcare—an entirely preventable loss.

Based on this experience, and the many lessons on injustice and inequity to come, my coursework, advocacy, and service over the last four years have all been part of a deeply held commitment to addressing healthcare disparities.

I started volunteering at the student-run Arbor Free Clinic my first quarter at Stanford as a Bridge to Care counselor. It was my job to find patients what the clinic couldn't provide—from health insurance and a regular doctor to temporary housing, legal assistance, and job training. I learned how a difficult diagnosis or untreated illness could impact every aspect of one's life, and about the potentially harmful interplay between health and sociopolitical factors—including from far too many undocumented families scared to seek healthcare out of fear of being separated and torn apart.

This was—and still is—the hardest job I've ever had, but it was the first time I felt like I had the knowledge base to help others. However, even after three years on the team, the sheer complexity and gaps in the healthcare system and the broader safety net meant that often our patients couldn't get the help they needed.

I worked my way up to become clinic manager, overseeing more than 100 undergraduate and medical student volunteers. As the primary liaison to other Bay Area community health centers and agencies, I worked to strengthen collaborations to provide patient resources, including up-to-date information on topics such as immigration assistance, domestic violence resources, and pro-bono surgery options.

Most importantly, in my successes and failures as a volunteer and manager, I learned that as an outsider to the communities we served, I needed to recognize my privileges and biases; the most important thing I could do was know when to listen, and to stay humble and empathetic.

As a gay man, I have struggled with less-than-inclusive care, and LGBTQ+ advocacy has been an important part of my passion for healthcare equity. At Arbor Free Clinic, I co-led the Queer Health Initiative, a multi-year project to systematically improve services and care for LGBTQ+ people. I also served with the Human Rights Campaign on the Healthcare Equality Index, a tool focusing on inclusive hospital policies, and at Pangaea Global AIDS as a Huffington Pride Cardinal Quarter Fellow, studying the HIV policy landscape for gay men and trans women in Zimbabwe.

While one-on-one patient interactions reaffirmed my goal to be a physician, through Stanford courses on racial and ethnic health disparities, the American healthcare system, and policy analysis, I learned about the broader policy and social landscape that leaves so many patients behind. Last summer, as a Sand Hill Foundation Cardinal Quarter Fellow at Kaiser Family Foundation, I applied this learning to writing policy analysis and issue briefs about changes to the Affordable Care Act and the state of the HIV epidemic for gay and bisexual men.

In the coming year, as a 2018 John Gardner Public Service Fellow, I will staff the Democratic health policy team for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the U.S. Senate, with Deputy Health Policy Director Andi Fristedt as my mentor. This committee is the battleground for many of the fights over Affordable Care Act repeal, healthcare costs, and reproductive justice, and where legislation to curb the opioid epidemic is taking shape, and I'm excited to dive into these important efforts.

Following the fellowship, I will pursue a medical degree at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. At Stanford it was service that affirmed, over and over, the issues I cared about and the ways I needed to be involved. Through my Cardinal Commitment, I learned how to channel my frustration with inequity into a constructive desire to do more.

As I look toward life after Stanford, I hope to continue working in both the clinical and systemic aspects of health—as a doctor healing individual patients, and as a policymaker and advocate working on the broader factors that affect their wellbeing.

Brian Kaplun, ’18 (Human Biology), MS ’18 (Management Science & Engineering), was one of more than 300 students who declared a Cardinal Commitment in 2017–18.
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