‘Medicine and public health are not silos’

An interview with Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, Flint, MI whistleblower

February 2, 2016

By Margie Coloian, MSJ

When pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD met with senior government officials weeks ago demanding action after she uncovered that water from the Flint River was poisoning children with lead, she gave them a deadline for alerting the public. That deadline was not met, and she held a press conference where she works, Hurley Medical Center, a large teaching hospital boasting a level II Pediatric Trauma Center. Flanked by hospital officials, who were clearly supportive, she told an anxious media and public of the health conditions that were affecting young patients and others, caused by water that was previously known to have corroded auto parts being washed at the nearby GM factory.

In an interview this week with RightCare Weekly, Hanna-Attisha, better known as Dr. Mona, praised the medical center. “I was so grateful for my hospital’s support,” she said. A meeting she had early on with the hospital’s CEO solidified the support she knew she had from the community. She remembers him saying ‘We’ll do whatever we have to do.’

“The hospital always had my back,” she emphasizes.

Waiting no longer to reveal her explosive analysis, she opted to deliver the findings instead of anticipating movement from local leaders and the EPA. What followed was disbelief and shock resonating around the world.

“We are a public children’s hospital,” she said. “This is my job. I’m a pediatrician, pediatric residency director and an advocate for children.” She maintains her findings are linked to her responsibilities as a physician.

“I think that people go into medicine to help people, but they get jaded from EMR, reimbursements and other things. Yet the reasons that they went into medicine sometimes get lost,” she laments. “We need to recognize there is a credible role of the physician in the community and that we have a powerful voice to improve public health. Medicine and public health are not silos.”

As the Flint crisis evolves, state officials are acknowledging that water was not treated properly for higher corrosiveness, and the mayor and President Obama have declared states of emergency to help residents. But there is little resolution in sight, now two years after the switch from Detroit’s water to Flint’s. Hanna-Attisha is frustrated by the lack of progress, and the “mess causing people to camp out every day in their homes, drinking and bathing with bottled water.”

The event that unintentionally propelled her into the spotlight seems at times to be “surreal” for her. But she offers that “everything I have done in my lifetime has led me to this.” With degrees not only in medicine, but also environmental health, as well as membership in her local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, she believes the Flint water crisis basically “fell into my lap.” And she is more than willing to be the leader, the loud voice for children.