Massachusetts Medical Society: Member Making a Difference - Dr. Fidencio Saldana

Member Making a Difference - Dr. Fidencio Saldana

As a Dean of Students, This Cardiologist Champions Equity, Diversity, Empathy, and Physician Wellness

Dr. Fidencio Saldaña
Dr. Fidencio Saldaña

Fidencio Saldaña, MD, MPH, dean for students at Harvard Medical School, takes to heart the challenges of clinical teaching and administrative support of students when it comes to all factors of success, including their personal health and wellness alongside their individual and professional growth.

After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in Human Biology, Dr. Saldaña received his MD from Harvard Medical School (HMS) and an MPH at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, focusing on Clinical Effectiveness. In addition to his current role as HMS dean for students, Dr. Saldaña is an assistant professor of medicine and clinical cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, specializing in cardiovascular imaging.

As the vice chair of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Diversity in Medicine, he helps to lead Society efforts aimed at improving diversity in the physician workforce and eliminating racial disparities in health and health care. To help accomplish those ends, he draws from personal experience as the son of immigrant parents. Dr. Saldaña works in all his capacities toward improving patient care for populations with known health disparities, particularly through the holistic betterment of student education, focusing especially on students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.

VS: How did you start down the path toward becoming dean for students at HMS?

Dr. Saldaña: I frequently mentored and tutored students throughout my academic career as a student, so education was always a passion of mine. But I was perhaps more motivated to give back to future generations of students because of the experiences I had as both a medical student and the son of Mexican parents, for whom I translated during many medical appointments when I was younger. I saw firsthand the difficulties in accessing care for vulnerable populations and set out to ameliorate the issues of health care delivery for these patients.

Initially, I wanted to address health disparities as a clinician and a researcher, but while I served as a chief medical resident, I fell in love with medical education. Additionally, it became clear to me just how many students and trainees were struggling with their personal well-being. Hoping to improve student life with the aim of ultimately improving physicians’ work-life and thereby their patient care, as well as work on health disparities, I decided to pursue medical education as a component of my career path.

VS: What challenges posed by the pandemic have you faced as dean for students and leader of the HMS Wellness and Mental Health Initiative?

Dr. Saldaña: It was really a dual pandemic, with COVID further highlighting and exacerbating racial disparities in health. The systemic inequities posed another challenge for student well-being. Each student was impacted differently. The realizations and challenges posed by the pandemic hit students very hard. We knew that reassuring our students was pivotal to their timelines for success, transparency was vital, honesty was imperative, and acknowledgment and understanding of trauma was essential. The school wanted our students to know that we were there for them in any way that they needed our support. We also tried to preserve community while providing remote content that maintained the highest standards during this period of navigating the unknown. One crucial aspect of supporting our students was in how we worked to identify ways in which the public health crisis could impact each student individually, recognizing that some may be impacted more than others and providing tailored support to those most in need.

VS: When thinking about wellness, what have you learned from a student perspective that can be applied throughout a physician’s career?

Dr. Saldaña: When we think about physician wellness or student wellness, we have to take a holistic approach to ensuring optimal well-being. It is necessary to find the pressure points that put stress on the lives of those working in and toward our profession. Whether those points are financial, medical, familial, or any other aspects of life, we must take those into account when we consider ways to improve wellness as a whole.

Personally, I always try to be kind to myself and understand my limitations. While we are in a profession that asks a lot, we can only do so much. It is beneficial to admit that and to find the ways that we can be most effective while also prioritizing our own well-being. I hold on to core values that help guide me when I feel overwhelmed. These are values that are foundational to who I am and what I hope to accomplish as a clinician, educator, and human. Two of those values are empathy and humility, which take my clinical practice to a very empathetic and personal level wherein my patients can feel comfortable with me and trust in my advice. Another core value is my family. I always try to prioritize family and keep them at the center of my motivation.

VS: What inspired you to become a member of the MMS Committee on Diversity?

Dr. Saldaña: Actually, my involvement with the MMS started through the Committee on Diversity, which energized me. It was exciting for me to see this organization specifically hold space for physicians and medical students of color.

It is not always common to see physicians of color in positions of power and influence, so when I learned about the Committee on Diversity at the MMS, it made me feel welcomed, and I wanted to share that feeling with my peers and other physicians of color. Creating community among physicians from underrepresented backgrounds is a strong way to improve health care and patient health. Over the last year especially, the committee saw how our work on antiracism has been very intentional and impactful. The collaboration between Massachusetts medical schools has been inspiring, and bringing student communities together across institutions has helped to amplify and empower quieted voices. Maintaining this momentum and continuing the work of antiracism in all sectors of society, but especially in medicine, is a critical step toward improving public health overall.

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