A passion for public health

Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Keila Lopez has always been passionate about public health and working with minority and underrepresented groups. She is now bringing her expertise to the Mayor’s Office for the City of Houston. Lopez has been named to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Hispanic Advisory Board.

Dr. Keila Lopez

Dr. Keila Lopez

“The goal of the group is to serve as liaison between the Hispanic community and the Mayor’s office to help the administration better understand the social, educational, economic and political issues they might face,” said Lopez, who is an associate professor of pediatrics. 

The committee, made up of other leaders in their respective professions, such as business or law, has been around for years; however, Lopez is the first doctor to be a part of the advisory board. This is particularly important given how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the health of the Latino community.

“Health disparities among minorities play a huge role in how a family or community advances in society. People who are essential workers and have lower paying jobs or have jobs that don’t provide insurance or time off to care for sick family members tend to disproportionately be minorities. These situations can lead to difficulty when it comes to accessing healthcare,” Lopez said. “Understanding this and other challenges that underrepresented groups face can inform how we move forward and forge a path to make impactful health policy changes.”

Those other challenges for minority populations include access to high-quality schools and education, sufficient neighborhood safety, language barriers, low literacy levels and, coming to light most recently, internet access during a time when telehealth and virtual education is necessary. All of these social determinants affect the health of individuals, families and communities. 

Lopez feels her input is an important addition to the board and will help city officials understand how the health of the community is affected by decisions made at higher levels, and how social determinants can profoundly impact health outcomes.

“You sometimes feel the responsibility to deal with longstanding systemic inequities being placed on minority communities who do not have the tools to address or solve such large issues. The Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board is working alongside city leadership to inform specific policy changes that can have benefits for the Latino community in various sectors, including health, commerce, education, etc.” 

Lopez is no stranger to working with Mayor Turner. Last year she was the only Latinx physician chosen to work on the Mayor’s Health Equity Response Task Force to help address health disparities seen among minority communities during the pandemic. She worked on the public health and medical subcommittees, which focused on outreach and healthcare messaging to minority and underrepresented groups. It was through this work that she was nominated to take part in the Hispanic Advisory Board. 

Her interest in public health started during her medical school training. She worked in health care systems in Brazil and Mexico and saw how socioeconomic status profoundly affected the type of healthcare certain groups received. She subsequently became a Commonwealth Fund fellow and completed a Master’s in Public Health degree in Minority Health Policy and Healthcare Administration from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Lopez adds that being the daughter of immigrants also has given her insight into the issues faced by underrepresented populations, when she noted that interactions her parents and Latino family had with the healthcare system were suboptimal due to lower health literacy and language barriers. 

Her health disparities research and public health initiatives were recognized earlier this year when she was named the 2021 Paul V. Miles Fellow by the American Board of Pediatrics. This honor was awarded to her for her outstanding work to overcome health inequities in pediatric congenital heart disease patients and quality improvement efforts in transitioning pediatric patients to adult care.

Prior to joining as faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, Lopez earned dual bachelor’s degrees (Portuguese and Biology) from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and her medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago where she is from. She completed her training and residency at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and her fellowship in Pediatric Cardiology and Advanced imaging at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Lopez says it is important for leadership at all levels and all disciplines to have representation of underrepresented minorities. 

Public health practices and initiatives do not reach populations who are invisible or don’t have an advocate, so representation matters. People look to see who is in charge and what decisions are being made. When they see someone who looks like them, someone who is representing them, they are more engaged and connected.”

Dr. Keila Lopez

By Graciela Gutierrez