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YSPH alum Dr. Lawrence Brown finds rewards in both surgery and music

March 28, 2023
by Fran Fried

Dr. Lawrence Brown sat at the piano at Nashville’s Music City Center last November at the Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual meeting. Amid the silence of the packed hall, one could see him become enveloped in his music as he performed a rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” — equal parts classical, jazz, and the church music of his upbringing as a minister’s son — performed with the precision and subtlety of both a classically trained pianist and the general surgical resident that he is. He then followed that with more of the same, with his medley of “To God Be the Glory” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Amid the hectic pace of studying for his PhD in Clinical Investigation at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (he plans to graduate in May 2025), as well as serving his five-year residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital (which he plans to complete in June 2027), Brown, MD, MPH ’18 (Health Policy), finds his solace in the 88 keys of his chosen instrument.

“There is almost no greater feeling than being on a stage with your eyes closed and performing,” he said. “Everything else seems to fall away. I feel like my truest self during performances. When words fail, music is often the perfect medium to express oneself. In both music and medicine, you get the joy of completion at the end of a performance or operation – and you can directly see the fruition of the hours of preparation.”

Inspired by a relative – Huntley Brown, a Christian concert pianist – Brown started playing piano when he was 8 years old, and shortly after began playing at his father’s church in Northern California. That’s where he first honed the discipline that he said carries over into his medical work: Learning how to focus on something for hours at a time, recognizing that each little step is preparation for the next performance or operation, and that each movement of the hand has impact and should be performed with care.

Brown earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Composition & Recording Arts at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2013, where he graduated with a minor in Chemistry; he also completed his pre-medical prerequisite courses there.

When words fail, music is often the perfect medium to express oneself. In both music and medicine, you get the joy of completion at the end of a performance or operation – and you can directly see the fruition of the hours of preparation.

Lawrence Brown, MD, MPH '18

He first came to the Yale School of Public Health in the summer of 2015 while a student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where he earned his master’s in Health Science in 2014 and his Doctor of Medicine degree in 2019. Meharry’s Center for Health Policy sponsored him to complete a postgraduate research fellowship in YSPH’s Department of Health Policy & Management (HPM). Brown collected and managed data for a study with Professor Susan Busch and Associate Professor Abigail Friedman that analyzed the effects of insurance premium surcharges for tobacco users on insurance uptake and smoking cessation. Brown also collected data for studies conducted by Associate Professor Chima D. Ndumele on provider turnover and continuity of care within Medicare managed-care plans.

“These were my first true exposures to health policy at an academic level, and my curiosity and interest in the topic deepened,” he said. “I met with the director of the Advanced Professional (AP) MPH program, Professor Mayur M. Desai, during that summer, and from then was very interested in formally pursuing a public health degree.” He enrolled at YSPH and began his AP MPH study in the summer of 2017.

In describing why he chose a health policy concentration, Brown said: “In medicine, we spend so much time focusing on an individual’s pathology that we often don’t consider the circumstances from which they come. Health encompasses so much more than a pathologic presentation. Health is socially determined, mediated by environment and broader policies that determine access to care. I wanted to look at health care delivery from a broad perspective — to learn how one’s upbringing, place of residence, economic status, family makeup, etc., impacts their ability to access the health care system and have a good clinical outcome.”

Brown cited Ndumele as a mentor during his summer as a research assistant. As an MPH student, he joined Ndumele’s research lab meetings, where he learned how to ask and answer impactful research questions about health care policy and how to draft research manuscripts that could be easily understood by the lay public. Ndumele also taught a course on comparative health systems that helped Brown re-examine how health care is delivered at the population level in the U.S. as compared to other developed countries, and the pros and cons of different health system schema.

Brown said he was also greatly influenced by Professor Shelley Diehl Geballe, JD, who taught a health law course and his health policy capstone course.

“She was deeply invested in students’ career trajectory and used her contacts to help us find capstone assignments that were best suited to our interests,” he said. Brown’s capstone practicum was done at Access Health CT, Connecticut’s insurance marketplace, where he learned the business/insurance side of health care.

Overall, Brown said he learned good research practices and the fundamentals of biostatistics and epidemiology at YSPH, skills that later helped him become a more competitive residency applicant. He said YSPH provided him with exposure to “an incredible network of public health professionals that remain mentors till this day.” He also appreciated the on-the-ground experience he gained via his capstone assignment; his exposure to policymaking through visits to Connecticut’s General Assembly in Hartford; and the incentive he was given to examine health care through a variety of lenses: law, political, social, and behavioral.

Lately, his health care focus has been on surgery – and it’s personal.

“Unfortunately, several family members have battled various cancers throughout my life, and so I developed a passion for oncology,” he explained. “I wanted to marry a career in oncology with surgery. Presently, I am interested in pursuing a clinical fellowship in colon and rectal surgery following general surgery training.”

Brown said his residency at Hopkins has been demanding, yet also rewarding.

“The hours can be long, and expectations are high – but it all has been worth it,” he said. “As a Black man in medicine, I understand that I am an anomaly by many standards. In 2014, I was one of 515 Black males to enter medical school across the country – less than 1 percent of all entering medical students. I do not accept this fact lightly, and this realization has motivated me to lend a voice to the concerns of underserved populations through clinical care, research, and advocacy. Every day I walk into the hospital is a privilege, and I try to give 100% to those I care for in the hospital.”

Additionally, Brown said that studying at Yale gave him the confidence and foundation to help advance the medical community through ongoing research.

In his academic development period, he is completing a postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by a National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Parent F32 Grant and the Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. His research examines how structural racism and health care resource availability impact disparities in deceased organ donation.

Related to his work, Brown said, “If the proposed research aims are achieved, our team will improve organ donation by highlighting novel intervention targets specific to organ donation among racial minorities; inform expected and potential donor rates across the US to be used in the allocation of organs within defined geographic units’ decision-making; and highlight uncommonly discussed outcomes of improving health care access across the U.S.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on March 23, 2023