In 2009, Ravikumar Chockalingam, MD, was a brand new father of a baby girl and working on a rural health system model in rural India.
Forty days later, Chockalingam, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity, was on a plane to St. Louis to join the inaugural Master of Public Health (MPH) class at the Brown School. His family would join him later, and despite the uprooting, he’s glad he veered from his original career path as a physician.
Chockalingam will be in the first class to receive of Master of Public Health degree at Commencement May 20.
Chockalingam’s medical training in India and the United States focused initially on laparoscopy and intervention gastroenterology, but when he was working in critical care in a hospital in India, he became interested in public health, particularly health systems.
“Public health is a very nascent field in India, and the only bit of public health exposure that medical graduates have is through community medicine, a rotation in medical school,” he says.
“Switching from critical care to public health was like moving from one end of the spectrum to the other. In one, we manage critically ill people at the level of tertiary care, and the other, I am trying to prevent people from getting to the point where they need to be in the hospital.
“Both are extremely important to health systems but I am convinced the latter does not get the attention that it deserves both in India as well as in the US,” he says.
Chockalingam began working with the IKP Centre for Technologies in Public Health (ICTPH) in the rural Thanjavur district in India, serving as an associate vice president for ICTPH’s rural health system where he was one of the founders of the community health worker program. He continues to serve from St. Louis in an advisory role.
“In a country like India, it’s really not possible or practical to expect a doctor to always be available for primary care,” Chockalingam says.
“We simply don’t have the kind of human resources needed. A better solution is to deploy alternate resources like nurse practitioners and through training community members to be health care workers.”
At the Brown School, Chockalingam worked his community health care worker model into his class work.
“Ravi and another student mapped the locations of community health workers and 2,600 families across a 13-village area,” says J. Aaron Hipp, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School.
“They were able to quickly identify physical barriers, including distance and infrastructure, between the community health worker and their population.
“His experiences and knowledge have enriched classroom discussion,” Hipp says. “Ravi brings passion for eliminating health disparities combined with a strong statistical aptitude. This blend of compassion and scientific rigor has been a perfect fit for our transdisciplinary public health program.”
He also was invited to present his community worker model to St. Louis Health Commissioner Melba Moore as well as a leadership team from Casa de Salud, which provides primary care services to Hispanic populations.
After graduation, Chockalingam will continue to make an impact at WUSTL.
He and Ramesh Raghavan, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School, will take a group of students to rural south India for a two-month immersion course.
“This summer, 14 students will work very closely with the community-based health system model that I have been working on to come up with evidence-based community and household-level interventions to common health problems like sanitation, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, maternal and child health and oral health,” he says.
He also has established a relationship between the Brown School and ICTPH to offer students interested in international research a place for learning and field experience.
Outside of the classroom, Chockalingam is an accomplished dancer. He choreographed dances and fashion shows for the graduate Indian student association and the annual International Festival.
Chockalingam also is a professional cricketer.
“I played cricket at the professional state level in India and now I’m playing for a first division professional cricket team in Missouri,” he says. “The season starts in May — I’m looking forward to it.”
Chockalingam credits his parents with inspiring him to be a better doctor and a public health professional and describes his wife, Anita, also a physician, as the pillar of support.
“There have been faculty members who have profoundly influenced me both professionally and personally,” he says. “I am very proud to be part of the inaugural MPH class at the Brown School. It’s been one of the most defining experiences of my life.”