‘All at once’: Abiba Salahou, M.D., awarded 2023 Excellence in Public Health Award
An image of Abiba Salahou, M.D.
Abiba Salahou, M.D., at the 2023 OUWB Honors Convocation.

Abiba Salahou, M.D., has long been committed to public health and advocacy never seeking or anticipating to earn any high-level recognition for her work.

However, Salahou recently was awarded the 2023 Excellence in Public Health Award from the U.S. Public Health Service Physician Professional Advisory Committee. She was formally acknowledged for this honor at 2023’s Honors Convocation on May 11.

Salahou said that she was “surprised” and “honored” to have received the award.

“I wasn't really expecting it, just because I know there are lots of really amazing classmates here that do a lot of volunteer work in the community and are also doing a lot of great initiatives…any one of us could have easily deserved the same award,” she said. “It was definitely a very pleasant surprise. I’m extremely honored as well.”

“It was nice to have some recognition that supports how deeply I care about improving the communities that I’m going to be serving,” added Salahou.

“Having that recognition right before starting residency has been really special, because I definitely want to continue that work as a physician.”

She received the email informing her that she would be receiving the award the same day as Match Day, adding to the already exciting day where she discovered she matched in psychiatry at Yale University.

“It was a phenomenal day, definitely the best day of my med school career for sure,” she said.

Addressing the barriers
Salahou’s first exposure to the medical field was when she was growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. She would accompany her grandmother on trips to the doctor to translate for her from English to Yoruba.

“Seeing firsthand the differential treatment that she would get as a non-English-speaking patient was really striking to me,” said Salahou.

“It made me interested in health care disparities and figuring out why it is that we have so much health care inequity,” she added. “And why things like language barriers create such a huge gap in care for patients.”

An image of Abiba Salahou, M.D., at Match Day 2023
Abiba Salahou was all smiles on Match Day.

Additionally, she credits growing up in an urban environment for exposing her to the disparities in health care. Salahou spent time volunteering with local refugee organizations in New York and in Nicaragua when she was an undergraduate student.

“(In Nicaragua) I was able to place the public health context within a larger global scale and look at all the things that I was seeing growing up in New York and contrast that to what I was seeing overseas,” she said. “It solidified my interest (in medicine).”

Overall, she said she finds medicine to be a field suited to advocating for marginalized populations.

“What I'm most passionate about is improving the conditions and the communities that I see around me as well as increasing awareness and shedding light onto the everyday plights and challenges that happen, especially within marginalized and underserved communities,” said Salahou.

“Medicine is really one of the most perfect fields to address this issue,” she added. “We're uniquely positioned as medical students because on the one hand, we have that perspective, being members of the community ourselves, but then we're also learning alongside physicians and other medical students and getting to see firsthand how the medical system is working.”

Time at OUWB
After Salahou graduated from Bard College with a degree in biology, she wanted to find a medical school that aligned with her values and interests, particularly in community organization and activism. She found that OUWB was the place that checked her boxes.

“When I was interviewing at medical schools, I was really paying attention to the schools that talked about community service, wanted students to get involved and be engaged, and wanted students to be involved in these conversations,” she said.

During her interview with OUWB, she was struck by the initiatives in place to get students involved in community service.

“It really seemed like the focus on community service wasn’t just for show on (OUWB’s) website, but something that was heavily prioritized,” said Salahou. “Being a student here, it's been so easy to tap into local organizations and get involved because there are already so many community partnerships…so I think that the emphasis and focus on community service ended up being true.”

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Salahou’s history of involvement at OUWB and the surrounding community is extensive— during her four years at the institution, she has been involved with several student organizations. She joined the Psychiatry Interest Group in 2021, and served as the M3 student representative and research liaison. In this group, she established a research component of the group to get students involved in the research aspect of psychiatry.

Salahou had been a part of the Student National Medical Association since 2020 and served on the group’s executive board, where she took part in organizing the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Health Fair at Chandler Park Academy High School and created programming on campus to educate medical students about the challenges minority patients and students face. Other student groups she was involved with and held leadership positions in include the Pediatric Interest Group, Mental Health Advocates Group, and Family Medicine Interest Group.

Outside of OUWB, Salahou has been involved with several community organizations, including Lighthouse of Oakland County.

“I’ve worked really closely (with them) to create a longitudinal research project evaluating how emotional distress during the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted emotional distress amongst food insecure individuals living in southeast Michigan,” she said.

Alongside that research, Salahou created a virtual mental health toolkit for community members.

What Salahou is most proud of, however, is the call-to-action she created in 2020.

“I led the initiative to create a call-to-action, anti-racism initiative at the medical school that consisted of meeting one-on-one with faculty members…and brainstorm how we can better increase the diversity within the curriculum and better increase our conversation about a lot of the public health issues that I felt weren’t being adequately addressed,” she said. “I also had a lot of help from other classmates of mine that were equally passionate.”

“(We) created an extensive document that outlines the ways in which we wanted OUWB to address our core eight actions items, including things like improving the preclinical curriculum to enhance conversations about race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and things like that,” she added. “(Another action item was) to increase the representation of various patient groups within our clinical teaching…we also had conversations about increasing racial diversity within the student body itself.”

In response to the document, Salahou said that “pretty substantial curriculum changes” were made, including new lectures in the pre-clinical curriculum and the creation of a call-to-action task force. She was also involved in creating a report auditing the lectures at OUWB to see how many times topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion were mentioned, which was then presented at national conferences.

Looking ahead to her residency, Salahou said that the same values that guided her to OUWB guided her to Yale.

“At Yale, there is one of the few psychiatry programs in the country that is really known for their social justice and community mental health work. Within the program, they have a whole social justice and anti-racism curriculum,” she said. “That directly spoke to me.”

“I think it came full circle…I feel like I'm still pinching myself every time I think about residency, but I’m extremely excited and honored to be able to train there, and super excited to continue being involved and passionate about advocating for marginalized patient populations.”

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