A Career Path Change into HIV Care

The HIVMA Clinical Fellowship Program funded by the IDSA Foundation, provides non-ID trained physicians with the most updated best practices for treating patients living with HIV/AIDS. Each year the program provides grants to fellows at institutions that predominantly serve communities of color. Funds are used to support a year of dedicated HIV clinical training for a non-infectious diseases trained physician interested in pursuing a career in HIV medicine.

Sunny Lai, MD, MPH, a Family Medicine doctor at Thomas Jefferson University’s Family & Community Medicine in Philadelphia, PA is one of the two dynamic physicians who were selected to receive a year-long mentored training with an ID/HIV specialist through the HIVMA Clinical Fellowship Program in 2019.

Now almost a year into the program, Dr. Lai shared her experience in an interview with the IDSA Foundation.

IDSA Foundation: How did you learn about the Clinical Fellowship program?

Dr. Lai: I learned about the Clinical Fellowship through a former HIVMA fellow. I applied because it was a unique opportunity to build competency in HIV medicine as well as my other clinical interests, including addiction medicine, gender-affirming care, and behavioral health. I am grateful that the funding allowed me to stay in Philadelphia so that I could continue to learn from and serve the community that turned me into a family medicine doctor.

IDSA Foundation: What advice would you give to others who are applying to the HIVMA Clinical Fellowship program?

 Dr. Lai: One piece of advice I would give is to dream big! You get to design your fellowship. It is liberating (yet daunting at times) to shape your educational experience. Take advantage of the fact that this fellowship gives you the gift of “time”: time to dive more deeply into your interests, time to explore new skills, time to be with your patients, and time for self-care.

To complement my first piece of advice I encourage you to be flexible as well. Things will not all work out as planned, but unplanned opportunities will arise. Planning and executing this fellowship year has taught me valuable lessons in being flexible, open to unexpected experiences, and appreciative of how journeys unfold.

IDSA Foundation: What have you enjoyed most through this program?

Dr. Lai: I am deeply appreciative of the mentorship and community through HIVMA and at my home institution. One of the most invigorating experiences thus far was meeting the former fellows and current HIVMA board members at IDWeek. The energy, collective experience, and passion were palpable. It was clear that the organization was committed to mentoring the next generation of providers who will provide care in medically under-served communities. I am also grateful for my mentors at Jefferson, Dr. Lisa Spacek and Dr. Marshal Miller, both of whom are strong advocates for training primary care doctors to provide HIV care. I know I will continue to draw strength and advice from this community as I create my path as an HIV provider. .

IDSA Foundation: Do you plan to go into HIV Medicine?

Dr. Lai: This fellowship changed my career path! I always knew that I wanted to provide HIV care, but I never thought that I would become a full-fledged HIV provider. This year opened my eyes to the breadth of HIV medicine and the importance of HIV primary care in keeping people healthy for years to come. Through patient care in diverse settings, I became more skilled in managing comorbid conditions, like substance use disorders, mental health issues, and hepatitis C. This grant has allowed me to take courses in motivational interviewing and mindfulness-based stress reduction. I discovered a propensity for teaching and had the opportunity to teach medical students, residents, community members, and behavioral health consultants.

This fellowship has helped lay my foundation for a career in HIV and social medicine.

When asked what was next for Dr. Lai, she explained “I am looking forward to starting my next job as an associate medical director at a county HIV clinic. In that role, I will provide HIV primary care and oversee quality and public health initiatives advancing health equity in people living with and affected by HIV.”

To learn more on the HIVMA Clinical Fellowship Program click here.