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Kamiak grad, TikTok star

Joel Bervell credits his grandma for inspiration in his medical career

 

Last updated 8/18/2022 at 12:10pm

Joel Bervell

Kamiak graduate Joel Bervell at Washington State University's Vancouver campus.

Have you ever swiped through TikTok and found yourself spiraling down a rabbit hole with no light in sight? If not, chances are you missed the litter of dancing puppies.

Amusing, yes. But, enlightening, not so much.

You probably also missed Kamiak High School graduate Joel Bervell, a third-year medical student at Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and a champion proponent against health-care racial disparity.

"It all goes back to my grandma," said Bervell, 27. "She used to make trips to Ghana, distributing stuffed animals to the children as part of our nonprofit program 'Hugs' before she passed away from malaria.

"When she got to the hospital, she was told that she had to bring her own hospital tubing and supplies to get treated. Ultimately there were delays in care, which led to her passing away. I think about that a lot because it was my first experience with health-care disparities."

In 2017, Bervell graduated from Yale University, where he earned a bachelor's in molecular cellular developmental biology. He served as an elected member of Yale student government and director of a longitudinal mentorship program based in low-income neighborhoods.

After graduating, he completed a master's in medical science at Boston University and spent a year working as a clinical research assistant at Providence Hospital researching best treatment modalities for appendicitis.

He's currently studying for a year at renowned Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Unlike amusing videos and trips down memory lane, Bervell is using TikTok to shine a light on racial bias and health-care disparity with his series called "Racial Biases in Medicine."

With nearly 500,000 followers and 15 million likes, Bervell's videos range from birthmarks in patients with darker skin to medical devices that don't help patients with dark skin equally.

"I think it's unique that Joel can do this great health work on social media," said Bevell's sister, Dr. Rachel Bervell, the recipient of the 2021 National Medical Association's Top Physicians Under 40 Award. She attended Harvard University and received her medical degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago of Medicine.

"Sometimes," she said, "social media can be a space where you need to wheedle out the true things from those that are misleading."

As an academic, Bervell started addressing health disparities by educating people through conferences and roundtables. But now, and as a TikTok celebrity, he can reach more people through social media.

Thanks to his TikTok and Instagram platforms, Bervell was invited to speak at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Google, the Clinton Foundation, and The Network of the National Library of Medicine, to name just a few.

"How can someone's ZIP code be a better predictor of their health than their genetic code? All these injustices were just thoughts going through my mind all the time while I was at Yale. Then when I got to medical school, I knew my focus would be on healthcare disparities and health inequities."

In college, Bervell continued to see how common racial bias was becoming. While in the dermatology unit, his class was talking about cyanosis, a medical condition in which lighter skin turns blue. But in his mind, he knew his skin wouldn't turn blue.

"It was surprising to see that I was not represented," he said. "So those were the kind of related experiences that got me posting content."

During an interview with the Smithsonian Channel, Bervell said: "We think of medicine as objective, but unfortunately, it's not. The systems we have today are built on prior beliefs that were unfortunately racist.

"The work I do right now is all about trying to change those narratives to try to include populations that have been overlooked in history and putting them in the front and center of medical education."

His commitment to stamping out the wrongs of the health-care community stretches far and wide. Currently, he sits as an invited participant on a White House roundtable.

"It's an amazing kind of program where I get to hear about things the Biden Administration is doing right now. I get to create content about anything I want with the updated policies that are happening."

In a 2019 report to Congress, the Federal Communication Commission introduced a suicide prevention hotline, 988, to give people in need an easier way to connect with counselors without remembering a lengthy phone number.

"The hotline was previously a 10-digit number, which is hard for people to remember. The Surgeon General's Office, Health and Human Services, and the White House have used the American Rescue plan to put funds toward the new number to try to make it easier for people to have easier access for those who need it."

Although he said he's not interested in accolades, it doesn't mean they are not flooding in. He's the recipient of the National Medical Association's Emerging Scholar Award, the highest academic honor presented to a student by the National Medical Association.

He was selected by the National Minority Quality Forum for its 2022 40-Under-40 Leader in Minority Health. In 2021 he was named Snohomish County's top Emerging Leader, as well as TikTok's top Voice of Change.

Said his sister, Rachel: "Joel took what he was learning in medical school or what his colleagues were experiencing to address the tough questions or shine a light on something that needed more exploring."

Read more about Bervell at http://www.joelbervell.com.

 

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