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Meet the Provider: Vanessa Ferrel, MD, MPH

Vanessa K. Ferrel, MD, MPH: Partnership Comprehensive Care Practice

May 4, 2023
By Lisa Ryan

Vanessa K. Ferrel, MD, MPH, completed postgraduate medical training in primary care and social internal medicine and obtained board-certification in internal medicine. Dr. Ferrel is passionate about employing the practices of health equity, social medicine and antiracism to achieve liberation for marginalized and oppressed people. Dr. Ferrel seeks to apply an antiracist, health equity and intersectional justice lens to all aspects of medicine and health care.

What made you want to be a physician?

I was one of those kids who was interested in science and wanted to help people. I understood medicine to be a field that would combine those passions. I'm the only doctor in my family and my parents were supportive and encouraged me to pursue this journey.

You studied primary care and social internal medicine. What is social medicine, and what role does it play in your day-to-day work?

“I want my patients to understand their medical conditions and feel empowered to take action.”

To me, social medicine emphasizes the importance of social, economic and political determinants of health as impactful contributors to experiences of health and disease, with a goal of achieving health equity. As a medical student, I felt that medical education and medicine as a culture were not inclusive of the social and political determinants of health equity. So, I took time off to complete a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree between my third and fourth years of medical school.

In the MPH program, my concentration of study was in sociomedical sciences, which was an incredible intersection between sociology and medicine that emphasized determinants of health equity. My MPH year was an awakening: being formally educated on theories and frameworks that explained how I intrinsically felt medicine should be was an incredible feeling. I seriously struggled with whether to continue my trajectory in medicine, or transition into a career in public health. While applying to residency, I focused on finding programs that seemed most likely to prioritize the things I valued. A program explicitly founded on social medicine matched that vision. I try to incorporate social medicine into my approach and assessments, but most importantly in the plans I make with patients. We talk about racism, capitalism, food apartheid, police brutality, slumlords, housing instability and strategize to decrease the impact of these factors when possible.

What drew you to your role at the Partnership Comprehensive Care Practice? To HIV-related medicine?

Some of my most memorable medical school experiences were related to rotating in the HIV Primary Care Clinic in San Diego, called the Owen Clinic. The clinicians were compassionate, patient-centered and dedicated, with heavy queer representation, which was a lovely and refreshing environment to be in as a medical student. I saw a lot of my identities represented in the largely QTPOC patient base and felt supported in the learning environment of the clinic. I decided that HIV medicine was the move and sought out further opportunities throughout my training to get involved with HIV research and medical care. After residency, my partner and I were deciding on our next step, and we were considering moving to Philadelphia. Being recruited to work at the Partnership felt like a serendipitous and natural fit.

What is your communication style with patients? What can patients expect from an appointment with you?

It's an enormous privilege as a physician to share in the vulnerabilities and victories in my patients’ lives. I do my best to flip the patient/physician hierarchy and ensure that my patients know they are in charge of their health. It's my role to support them in this journey. I want my patients to understand their medical conditions and feel empowered to take action. I understand health to be more than just clinic interactions, so I often end up talking during patient visits about social and political determinants of health that are impacting my patients. I know that getting to specialist and sub-specialist appointment takes time and money, so I do my best to be comprehensive in both primary/preventative care, and secondary management/treatment. This means I may be running behind in the clinic, but my patients understand that they will get the time and attention they deserve during their visit, despite the wait.

“My goal as a medical and public health professional is health equity at the individual, population and community levels.”

How do your passions for health equity and antiracism, as well as social medicine, influence your work as a physician?

As a Black and queer person, I struggle with being a physician while knowing the field of medicine has done so much harm to marginalized and oppressed communities, and how damaging it is to trainees and workers from historically excluded groups. I've been increasingly drawn to the frameworks of abolition, liberation, transformative justice and restorative justice throughout the course of my medical training. Health equity, antiracism, and social medicine are applications and examples of those frameworks in action. My goal as a medical and public health professional is health equity at the individual, population and community levels. It is also the lens through which I guide my practice.

Abolitionist theory invites us to imagine a better world: a world without harm, a world centered on care and community. Transformative and restorative justice demand acknowledgement of and accountability for harm, and intentional steps to transform, reduce and repair harm. Health equity is the goal of social medicine, and the practice of social medicine requires interrupting harm at the internalized, interpersonal, and institutionalized levels and combating the status quo of racism, ableism, cisheterosexism, capitalism, et cetera typically perpetuated by the culture of medicine. It's challenging to fight against the machine that is medicine, to combat this large-scale harm, but I believe in the power of small radical acts: flipping the patient/doctor hierarchy, being intentional about providing space for patients to express their needs and fears, allowing them to take as much time as they need, validating their experiences with oppression, leveraging my platform as a physician to advocate for patients in creative ways, and encouraging patients to advocate for themselves within health care settings. Transforming harm on an individual level, in the hopes of promoting a health care environment that actually feels caring.

Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?

I enjoy playing music and going to shows, and spending time outdoors with my partner and our dog.

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

The images being used are for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted is a model.

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