Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Rohini Haar

Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Program alumni have included practitioners and academics who have continued working across a broad spectrum of human rights issues. Our new Alumni Spotlight feature will highlight and recognize their important contributions to both domestic and international human rights work.

For our first installment of the Alumni Spotlight feature, we interviewed Dr. Rohini Haar and learned about her work in global public health:

Rohini Jonnalagadda Haar, M.D., works in emergency medicine at St. Luke's – Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.  A UChicago alumna, Dr. Haar received her A.B. in Political Science with Special Honors in the Biological Sciences in 2001 and her M.D. from the Pritzker School of Medicine in 2005. While at Chicago, she was actively involved in the Human Rights Program- doing internships with the IRC in Ethiopia and with Amnesty International in Morocco and acting as the internship coordinator for a year, and the student member on the HRP Board.  She did her medical residency at NYU/Bellevue Medical Center in NYC.  Her clinical experiences in New York City, Haiti, and West Africa have influenced her interest in evidence-based practice in low income settings, particularly in the post-emergency transition periods.  Dr. Haar has published articles on issues including health in fragile and post-conflict states and post-reconstruction sites like Haiti. She has worked on projects in Palestine, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Morocco and Guyana, the Thai-Burma border as well as the Millennium Villages project (Earth Institute, Columbia University) and the Doctors of the World Human Rights Clinic in New York. Focusing on the health of vulnerable populations, Dr. Haar is completing her Masters in Public Health at Columbia University this fall and continues to work in public health research both in domestically and internationally

Human Rights Program: How has your experience with your Human Rights Program affected your career?

Rohini Haar: I was in the middle of college when I discovered the Human Rights Program. It was in its infancy itself and the people there and the classes really resonated with me. Since then, the theory and the practice has been a focus for my research, and work both in the US and abroad. 

HRP: As an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, you earned an A.B. in Political Science. What led you to go to medical school?

RH: I wanted to practice a profession and learn a clear and helpful skill and was interested in the science of health. As I learned more about the world of human rights and public health, I found a niche in the interaction of these two worlds- medicine and the social policies around it. Medicine compliments and adds to my understanding of public health and vice versa. I think having health professionals in this context brings another perspective from the academic or legal ones. Medicine and public health are very synergistic for me. 

HRP: Your work abroad has encompassed diverse places such as Palestine, Ethiopia, Guyana and the Thai-Burma border. What have been some of the difficulties and challenges that you’ve faced working abroad?

RH: In the clinical perspective, the hardest part of working abroad is the constant awareness of the cost of life, and the importance of resources in medicine. One of my most frustrating and heartbreaking experiences was treating a small boy with cerebral malaria in Ghana. The hospital simply did not have enough medications, or access to enough supportive care, to save this boy that in the United States, would no doubt have received ICU level resuscitation. We hear these stories every day but watching a little boy suffer for many hours and then seize to death in front of your eyes when you know what needs to be done but simply do not have enough was a heartbreaking moment. From a public health and rights perspective, the hurdles of bureaucracy and the corruption are equally difficult to manage. These experiences are particularly an issue in the most fragile and post-conflict nations where I’ve worked. The combination of weak systems and inadequate resources have led to some of the worst health statistics in these places and why I find them particularly interesting to work in. From the rights perspective, the most vulnerable, and marginalized communities are often those who are most at risk of having their rights violated and where I find myself drawn to.  

HRP: What are the major differences of working domestically and internationally? Do you prefer one over the other?

RH: Resources are the biggest difference between working domestically and internationally, from a clinical perspective. In the US, though we may complain about overcrowding or long wait times, we as physicians generally have the decision to practice medicine with a high standard of care. If we need to get a certain study, it gets done; if certain tests need to happen, they happen. Patients may wait a long time but they ultimately receive proper care. This is also the case despite their personal finances and ability to pay. At least in the Emergency Room, it is legally required (to receive any federal funding) that hospitals provide life-saving treatment for all patients regardless of the ability to pay. In developing countries, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In most places, there is no insurance, there is no safety net. When you walk into the hospital, every thing from the medicine to the gauze and the IV tubing has to be paid for before it is used on a patient. If the patient or the family does not have the  money to pay, care can be suspended or interrupted. This not only affects those who are unable to pay, but dramatically changes the psyche of treating physicians and the culture and ethos of medicine more broadly. As an Emergency medicine physician, I love the challenge of variety and diversity. Similarly, I love the mix of working both in the US and abroad- one informs the other and keeps me on my toes. 

HRP: Finally, what are some of the projects you’re working on at the moment?

RH: I’m about to have a baby ... so I’m winding down the projects for the next few months. But, I am working in New York City in looking at how patients who revisit the Emergency Department within 30 days are potentially at higher risk of lacking other health services and have poorer health more generally. This study is ongoing. The work I did on the Thai-Burma border is ongoing and we hope to publish that data in the coming months and potentially, the team will look at reviewing a global instrument looking at attacks and violence against health workers in other conflict zones.