Chandak Ghosh, standing in front of an American flag, in military dress uniform.
Chandak Ghosh, the first recipient of VCU's Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment. (Courtesy photo)

25 years ago, a VCU award changed the direction of a medical student’s life

Chandak Ghosh’s PACME selection inspired him to pursue a career in public health.

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When Chandak Ghosh became the first Virginia Commonwealth University student honored with a Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment in 1994, he wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. The award was so new that “no one knew exactly what it meant or what it was for,” he said. Still, Ghosh, who was a student in the VCU School of Medicine, felt a rush of pride for the honor. Now, 25 years later, he considers the award a pivotal moment in his life.

“I would say the PACME was really what changed the trajectory of my career and pointed me in the direction that I needed to go,” Ghosh said. “I look at that moment as being the beginning of a new path for me.”

Ghosh was selected for the honor because of his burgeoning interest in health equity issues. PACME was created to award those who have contributed to promoting civility, building community, establishing cross-cultural initiatives, advocating equity, and nurturing tolerance and inclusive excellence throughout VCU. As a student, Ghosh had taken advantage of the opportunities the School of Medicine offered students to work with “vulnerable populations who don’t normally get the health care that they need,” he said, and he’d felt drawn to the problems associated with health disparities. His volunteer work in the area and early advocacy for awareness led to his PACME selection.

“When you’re a medical student, you’re mostly just trying to understand medicine, and it takes all of your brain power to learn what you need to learn about physiology and anatomy and everything else you need to know to be a doctor,” said Ghosh, who served as president of the VCU chapter of the American Medical Student Association as a student. “But then you begin to realize there’s a real world out there. As I was feeling my way through medical school, I started to see that all of these groups of people with health issues weren’t being served the way that they should be.”

Ghosh said the PACME validated his interest in the topic and made him feel as though no matter what field of medical practice he chose, he would be able to make the health needs of vulnerable populations a key facet of his career. 

“This award was such a proud moment for me,” Ghosh said. “It pushed me in the direction I’ve taken.”

Following graduation from VCU, Ghosh served his residency in ophthalmology and then received a fellowship in minority health policy at Harvard University. He later earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard. He eventually joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he now serves as a senior medical adviser. Ghosh said he has found a home in the federal department, where he has worked on issues ranging from AIDS/HIV and the development of the Affordable Care Act to the opioid crisis and the cost of medicine. His efforts also led to the development of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s National Performance Review Protocol, used to improve all federal health grantees, including hospitals, universities and community health centers.  

In addition, Ghosh has published landmark research on minority health issues with a focus on improving outcomes for overlooked Asian American populations. He said working on health access issues for that demographic has become his primary niche. 

“I found that there was a real need to pay closer attention to Asian American health,” Ghosh said. “There was a lack of funding in that area, and there were groups working on it who weren’t connecting with each other. I felt that my role was to bring those groups together and serve as a catalyst for everyone being on the same page. I wrote some studies that helped spark that and brought some stakeholders together. I think we’ve seen a lot of progress with Asian American health in funding, research and general understanding of what the issues are. We’ve also seen an improvement in health outcomes. It’s very satisfying to have played a part in that.”

2019 PACME Awards

This year’s PACME recipients will be honored on Tuesday, April 23, at 3 p.m. in the Richmond Salons of the University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave., on the Monroe Park Campus. 

The PACME ceremony was created to recognize members of the university and health system communities who have contributed to promoting civility, building community, establishing cross-cultural initiatives, advocating equity, and nurturing tolerance and inclusive excellence throughout the university. The winners of this year’s awards are:

- VCU Center on Health Disparities, academic and administrative leadership award

- Christopher A. Brooks, Ph.D., faculty award

- Barbara J. Payton, staff award

- Tristen Taggart, student award

Ghosh said he feels fortunate to have devoted his career to public health. His research has been presented before the White House and Congress, and the U.S. Public Health Service has awarded Ghosh the rare Meritorious Service Medal, among its highest honors, for “influencing progress towards health equity on a national scale.” He believes Americans increasingly are recognizing the importance of studying the big-picture view of health care in the United States, learning from its successes and seeking solutions for its failures. He believes the country has seen progress, but not enough.

“The work is nowhere near completed,” Ghosh said. “We’ve got more to do to help people understand that we all deserve proper health care, no matter your origin or skin tone. There really shouldn’t be a reason for the words ‘health disparities’ in this country, but there is. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”                                                          

Ghosh remembers his days as a student in the VCU School of Medicine with gratitude. He said the school not only trained him and his peers to be successful medical professionals but it also empowered them to pursue interests within the field that were important to them. He particularly is appreciative of the mentorship of Hugo Seibel, Ph.D., at the time an associate dean of student activities in the medical school and a professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Seibel worked with Ghosh to sort through his interests and determine the path he would take. 

Ghosh said he enjoys looking back 25 years ago to the PACME ceremony and remembering the excitement he felt. Even if he was not sure why the moment was important to him at the time, he could sense that it would endure. 

“I still feel so thankful for winning that award,” Ghosh said. “If I hadn’t received it, who knows — I might be lost today. It helped me understand what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. What’s more important than that?”