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Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, MD, is board certified in pediatric emergency medicine and pediatrics and is an emergency medicine physician. She is medical director of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She also serves as associate vice chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UPMC Children’s. Dr. Owusu-Ansah is an associate professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is an associate professor at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitative Sciences and a UPMC medical command physician.

What was your childhood like as the daughter of African immigrants?

My parents came to the United States from Ghana, West Africa. As a result, I was surrounded by many more African than African American influences early on. I was born in Boston and even today consider myself a Bostonian. When my parents divorced, they moved to separate cities, so I also lived in Concord, N.H., and Lexington, Ky. And when my mother remarried, I had an amazing opportunity to live in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia in southwest Africa, during high school.

As a teen, you became very interested in the AIDS crisis and even thought about becoming an immunologist. What inspired that interest?

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My stepfather — whom I call my dad — received a Master of Public Health from Harvard and worked at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. When my dad was offered the opportunity to work with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Namibia, our entire family moved with him. I spent my first three years of high school there, attending an international school for children of United Nations (U.N.) ambassadors and other officials from all over the world. I quickly learned then that prejudice has many heads. I was no longer considered different because I was Black — but because I was a “Yankee.”

It was because of my dad’s experiences in Namibia that I became interested in immunology. He led outreach and educational efforts in Namibia, working with its health minister. He shared devastating stories that stuck with me, from homeless kids who lost their families to AIDS to pregnant widows infected with the virus by their spouses. He also fought an uphill battle from a political standpoint — in Africa and in the United States — to provide health care to AIDS patients at a time when that wasn’t everyone’s first priority. The issues he faced then are still happening in health care today. That became especially evident during COVID-19.

He also made sure our family understood what apartheid looked like and the immense inequality it created on every level of society. We saw Black men and women lining up on the streets predawn, hoping to get a job that day as menial workers. You’d never see a person as dark as me holding any kind of white-collar job or ever have the opportunity to go to college.

When we moved back to the United States, I finished high school in Boston and then enrolled at the University of Rochester, where I majored in biochemistry.

Did you have a mentor — someone who inspired you or helped guide your path into medicine?

Throughout my life, I’ve had many mentors who have helped shape and inspire me. In 1998, I participated in a minority medical education program that linked us to incredible Black mentors at a number of medical schools. I was fortunate to have Dr. William McDade as my mentor. He’s a brilliant obstetric anesthesiologist and sickle cell researcher and at the time was on the Pritzker School of Medicine faculty at the University of Chicago. He’s now an adjunct professor at Rush Medical College in Chicago.

I only applied to four medical schools — not because I was confident, but because I was not! While I did well in college, I’m not a great test taker. Because he knew my background and history, Dr. McDade was an incredible advocate for me. He personally called to let me know I was admitted to Pritzker for medical school.

How did your interests in educational access and advocacy develop?

As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, I founded a volunteer group that worked with teens from a nearby underserved, low-income housing community. My classmates and I became involved in a similar project at the University of Chicago working with underserved kids living in Robert Taylor Homes, a former public housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Our goal was to keep the kids occupied on Friday nights, which typically saw a lot of violence. I also tutored fourth and fifth-graders at a local school who were reading at first and second-grade levels.

I grew a lot through those one-on-one experiences. But I also was looking for ways to make a bigger difference. So, when I finished my third-year rotations, I went to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to pursue my Master of Public Health. I fell in love with writing health policy — something I still love doing today.

What led you to a career in emergency medicine?

I decided to do my residency in adolescent medicine and was matched at Children’s National in Washington, DC. That’s when my advocacy efforts really kicked into high gear. During my residency and for many years after, I worked with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ legislative group on Capitol Hill on projects like having epinephrine auto-injectors in every school.

The wheels of government can move incredibly slowly, though. A good example is the pediatrics subspecialty loan repayment program that finally passed in June 2023. It was legislation I actually worked on over a decade ago!

As a third-year resident, I realized that adolescent medicine wasn’t my passion. I applied for a position in the pediatric emergency department (ED) at Children’s National where I worked the ED while continuing to advocate on Capitol Hill.

My ED experience convinced me to pursue a pediatric emergency medicine fellowship at Johns Hopkins, and it was there that my love for emergency medicine services (EMS) came into focus. EMS also let me pursue my interests in public health, advocacy, and policy writing as they related to prehospital care and pediatrics. At the time, I was one of only five people nationwide who was a pediatrician, a pediatric emergency medicine physician, and an EMS physician. There still aren’t very many of us.

Could you talk about your efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I began writing op-ed pieces and blogs that got picked up by media like The New York Times, Huffington Post, and U.S. News & World Report.

UPMC asked me to be one of the first people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. I was the second person in Pennsylvania — as well as the first Black person and the first physician — to be vaccinated. I used that opportunity to say to my community and say, “I will show you that it’s OK.”

I was very candid about the health disparities laid bare by the pandemic and what it was like being a Black doctor. At the time, less than 1% of our faculty— just four doctors out of 331 — identified as Black. I shared those numbers with Dr. Terence Dermody — chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Pitt’s School of Medicine — and with his support and the help of a diverse group of faculty and staff, we wrote the first anti-racism statement in UPMC Children’s 130-year history.

Could you speak about the leadership roles you’ve taken on to help advance EMS?

I see EMS as an important opportunity to look at how we treat different populations in emergency situations. The goal is to ensure that everyone gets the critical and often lifesaving care they need before they get to the hospital — no matter their age, color, or income status. EMS traditionally treats emergencies and doesn’t differentiate between adults and children — but children aren’t little adults. I’m committed to impacting pediatric emergency care by closely collaborating with and providing appropriate training to EMS professionals.

The need is great, which is why I’m heading up one of the nation’s first prehospital tracks for pediatric emergency fellows at UPMC and Pitt’s School of Medicine. We just graduated our first fellow in May 2023, Dr. Angelica Cercone. So, EMS is growing here!

In addition to my work here at UPMC, I’m on the board of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), the certification board for EMS professionals nationally. I also sit on the Pediatric Committee for the National Association of EMTs, which is the association for EMS clinicians. And I’m currently the co-medical advisor of Pennsylvania’s EMS for Children’s program.

And early in 2023, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg appointed me to the National EMS Advisory Council. In that role, I have the honor of representing pediatrics for the entire country when it comes to pediatric prehospital care.

What are some of the challenges your area faces in delivering quality prehospital care to children who are from uninsured, disadvantaged families?

Historically, there hasn’t been much data on prehospital emergency care disparities when it comes to underserved children, but more information is emerging. At UPMC Children’s, for example, I recently led one of the first research efforts on disparities in asthma care in the prehospital environment.

There also are now indices that can be used to project whether a child or adult is at high risk for food insecurity, health care access, and other barriers. We need to recognize, though, that biological constructs are not social determinants of health. The problem isn’t race-based. It’s not because they’re Black, or inherently lazy, or genetically not up to par. Systemic racism and oppression have led to these poor health outcomes.

How did you become so involved in teaching CPR to the community?

Did you know that Black women are the group least likely to receive bystander CPR? Dr. Rikki Tripp, my UPMC counterpart for adult EMS, and I put our heads together. We decided we needed to stop talking about this — and start educating brown and Black women like us on how to do CPR. It saves lives!

Together, we’ve been working with numerous schools and community groups doing hands-on CPR training for hundreds of women and their families.

Plus, we’ve been teaching CPR to more than 200 young Pitt athletes with the goal of teaching all teams. We’re also doing Stop the Bleed certification in the community. And, to keep the momentum going, we’ve created a nonprofit, Akoma United. Akoma is a word from my parents’ homeland, Ghana, that literally means “the heart.”

I’ve also been invited to serve on the executive leadership team of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women event here in Pittsburgh in May 2024, which both UPMC and Pitt help sponsor. My goal is to bring even more awareness to women’s heart health.

There’s even a film now in the works about you. How did that develop?

During COVID-19, I started writing a book. Each chapter is about a patient who impacted me in some way. Carl Kurlander at Pitt’s Film and Media Studies program heard about it and thought it might be a good fit for PITTch!, an annual competition the program hosts to give Pittsburghers hands-on experience in pitching movie and TV ideas to producers.

Carl put me together with a budding young Black screenwriter, Yasmine Crawley — and we made it to the finals! The film focuses on one chapter in my book about a young Black gunshot wound patient who came to the ED during my shift. It explores the judgments I made about him in a busy ED that potentially could have prejudiced my care. The film is called In Good Hands and should be screening at Pitt in a few months.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.