Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. The IDSA Foundation is proud to celebrate the accomplishments of our Latinx members, and recently had the privilege of speaking with Lilian Abbo, M.D., FIDSA to learn more about her work and the importance of building a diverse infectious diseases (ID) workforce.
Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Dr. Lilian Abbo graduated from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. She then pursued an internship at Jacobi Medical Center in New York, an internal medicine residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Jackson Memorial Hospital/ University of Miami.
Dr. Abbo is the chief for Infection Prevention and Control and the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program for Jackson Health System and a Professor of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the Miami Transplant Institute and the Department of Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. She is the past president of WIAM (Women in Academic Medicine) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Fellow of the Executive Leaders in Academic Medicine (ELAM) from Drexel University Class of 2019-2020. Dr. Abbo has served on several IDSA committees and task forces, and is currently a member of IDSA’s Inclusion, Diversity, Access and Equity Task Force.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
It’s a way of acknowledging all the great contributions made by Hispanics in America. We are a country made up of immigrants and we are all diverse. Some people are Black Hispanic, white Hispanic, Chinese Hispanic or Jewish Hispanic like me. Recognizing the strength of our society and America is to recognize our values and contributions. We are stronger together when we have diversity of thought, as well as race, gender, and ethnicity; our values, perspectives, experiences and knowledge contribute to advance patient care and overall, our society.
As a Venezuelan American, I am grateful for the opportunities to serve, collaborate and lead changes in health care. I grew up in Venezuela and learned very early in my career to treat every patient with high standards of care.
I believe Hispanics have a very rich cultural background and are valuable contributors to science, culture, the economy, and public health. Recognizing these contributions during Hispanic Heritage Month, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many Hispanics have been affected, is very meaningful.
Why do you believe we need to build a diverse ID workforce?
I believe that if we all look alike and think alike, we cannot recognize our weaknesses and opportunities to improve because we’re all thinking the same way. I strongly believe diversity enriches our culture and society, our creativity, leads to higher innovation, faster problem solving, better decision–making and increases participation and engagement. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen unfortunate gaps and disparities in access to care, severity of illness and outcomes affecting minorities. At the same time, we have seen how a diverse workforce around the globe has come together to rapidly share experiences, data, information and improve our understanding from epidemiology to patient care on how to control the pandemic.
Having a diverse workforce is extremely important for science, patient care, education and public health. Mentoring, sponsoring and promoting diversity is extremely important for the present and future of infectious diseases.
How do you think a diverse workforce can benefit patients?
We have seen that underserved populations have really been affected by COVID-19, and I do think having a society that integrates diversity at all levels benefits everyone
In general, patients feel more comfortable with providers who look like them and can communicate in the same language. Having a diverse workforce ensures that we can effectively impact the care of a wider group of patients. Understanding how our patients think, their cultural beliefs, access to care, social determinants of health, diets and habits, communication style has an important role in the prevention and treatment strategies of many infectious diseases.
I have experienced this myself with patients during my early training and residency, where I was the only Hispanic, and I encountered a non-English speaking patient being incorrectly treated with a heart condition when he had cellulitis. My colleagues were unable to communicate with him, which underscores the need for teams that can communicate with all patients – not just English speakers. As our population grows increasingly diverse, it is critical that our healthcare workforce adapt and change, too.
Did you have any mentors or advisors that supported your journey?
I had different mentors at different stages of my career. My first mentors were my father and my uncle. My dad is in physical medicine and rehabilitation, but he taught me how to care for each patient as an individual, regardless of their economic background, and the importance of taking the time to listen and to help everyone regardless of who they are or where they come from. In his words, “the greatest reward you can get from a patient is the gratitude for improving their condition or saving a life.” That is priceless and medicine is one of the few professions where we experience that gratitude daily. My other mentor was my uncle Isaac Abadi, who unfortunately passed away April 1 from severe COVID-19. He was a rheumatologist and a trailblazer in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. He taught me to think critically, question every diagnosis until I could understand the root of the problem and to never take for granted another physician’s diagnosis. He was a pioneer in evidence-based medicine and, most importantly, he taught me that every patient is more than a disease, and how the mind, body and soul are interconnected to find the right cure for each individual.
In my career I have been grateful to have other mentors, such as Dr. Kenneth Ratzan, who thought me to think clinically but also to go the extra mile on each case and review the microbiology, pathology, radiology with each discipline and question the diagnosis. He also taught me to fearlessly contact other colleagues such as surgeons and clearly discuss why our patient needed a procedure or simply stopping the antibiotics. Dr. Luis Espinosa, and Rafael Campo inspired me to care for patients with HIV. Dr. Thomas Hooton guided me as a junior faculty member in antimicrobial stewardship. He helped me stay focused work collaboratively, network and helped me advance my career. Dr. Ingrid Vasiliu-Feltes, shaped my views on the healthcare industry, and why women leaders have an important voice (not just a seat) at the table. Most recently, the Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive at Jackson Health System, Dr. Peter Paige, and University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Dean Dr. Henri Ford have also been great mentors and advisors. Finally, I am fortunate to have great mentors among my peers, my mentees and my own children.
I believe that in life we need mentors, sponsors and advocates. You need someone who is there for you to guide your steps and open doors. Equally important is that you pay it forward.
Tell us about your experience on the frontlines of COVID-19.
I am the infectious disease lead for Jackson Health System, one of the nation’s largest public health systems with three acute care hospitals in Miami-Dade County, a pediatric hospital, a behavioral health hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, two long-term care facilities, a network of urgent care centers, outpatient clinics, and healthcare provider to inmates in the county jails. Early January 2020, we started our pandemic preparedness from communications, triage, protocol development and access to procurement and supply chain to ensure the system had ample amount of supplies and personal protective equipment. I have been working in collaboration with my colleagues at the University of Miami Health System where I am faculty, integrating any decisions within both systems.
I have worked closely with senior leadership at Jackson Health System on procurement of ventilators, masks, other PPE, ensuring proper staff levels, laboratory testing, medication supplies, clinical trials, research, hospital policies, human resources, and employee health. We created a stewardship of testing group to determine who and how to test, allocation of Remdesivir and protocols for treatment, infection control contact tracing, isolation and education. We have a comprehensive protocol that gets updated weekly from transportation of patients to management and literature updates. I have also been managing patients and advising on diagnostic and treatment workup along with our ID pharmacists, ID physicians, transplant, pulmonary and critical care teams.
For the past eight months, I have been interviewed by multiple local, national and international media outlets in Spanish and English, educating and informing the community. Part of my role at the largest public health system in Miami has been to work closely with the Mayor of Miami–Dade County on plans to reopen the county. I have served as a medical advisor on multiple taskforces, spoken as an expert at press conferences, and participated in community outreach and education sessions to improve mask use, reinforce social distancing practices, in an effort to help our community’s economy to recover and reopen. I have served in roundtables and press conferences with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In summary, I have multiple responsibilities, all while making sure our workforce is safe, protected, supported and that we continuously improve patient outcomes.
What has the response to your work been?
I have received a positive response from our workforce, our health system and medical school leaders, my peers, my family, friends and the community. I am humbled to have been unexpectedly recognized by the Florida Governor and his wife in the 2020 Hispanic Heritage Month Student Contests as an “unsung healthcare hero.” I was surprised to see myself alongside Carlos A. Gimenez, Mayor of Miami-Dade County, and Carlos Migoya, president and CEO of Jackson Health System.
This year’s theme is “Celebrating Untold Stories and Contributions of Hispanic Americans in Florida,” which focuses on celebrating and recognizing individuals who have made the state a better place. The competition encourages students to take a deeper look into the local leaders, innovators and community members who have contributed to Florida’s successful history and bright future.
The response to the campaign has been inspiring. I was interviewed by a seventh grader who later wrote:
“The fact that [Dr. Abbo] is knowledgeable, successful, and Hispanic like me, is so inspiring. My Abuelita is from Ecuador and has always told me to pursue my dreams and work hard on my education. When I grow up, I want to have a successful career and family as well.”
A kindergarten teacher, who shared that her daughter had drawn a picture of me and had written that when she grew up, she wanted to be smart and beautiful like me, also contacted me on Twitter.
Knowing I am inspiring the next generation of young Hispanic women to know they have a voice, to believe in themselves and give them hope has shown me you don’t know who you are reaching through your work. While the pandemic has changed so much about how we all live, work, and play – and it has impacted the lives of so many – I want people to know this, too, shall pass and not to lose hope.
Considering the theme “building the future of ID,” can you please share your thoughts to share with the next generation of ID leaders?
The most notable thing to come out of this pandemic is that no one asks me what I do anymore. Before this, no one had a clue what a hospital epidemiologist or infectious disease doctor did. But now, we have become the source of expertise and value. We really need to represent the value and the contributions that infectious diseases specialists bring to the global community.
I hope our work inspires more people to go into the specialty of infectious diseases and realize how many opportunities they have. You can work as hospital epidemiologist and lead a pandemic, stewardship, pharmacy, research, or you can be a clinician or hospital administrator. There are so many things that infectious disease education brings and contributes as a specialty.
I always tell my mentees that you will never be bored; there’s always a new disease, and every couple of years we must learn something new. I hope that we attract a more diverse workforce.