Spotlight on Daniela Diaz, MD

Columbia University Irving Medical Center believes that excellence, diversity, and inclusivity are inextricably linked and that different experiences, perspectives, and values are essential elements that enrich every dimension of our work. A diverse faculty facilitates culturally competent medical education and clinical care and also brings important and different perspectives to the research agenda.

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, CUIMC News will feature profiles of faculty members who are helping the medical center achieve excellence in research, education, and patient care.

Daniela Diaz, MD

Daniela Diaz

Daniela Diaz, MD '12, teaches at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she is assistant professor of medicine and quality lead at the Center for Family and Community Medicine. She is on the faculty of the Daniel Noyes Brown Primary Care Scholars Program and associate director of the primary care clerkship.

Diaz is passionate about providing the highest quality of culturally sensitive care to New York City's underserved communities. She is an associate medical director of New York-Presbyterian's Herman "Denny" Farrell Jr. Community Health Center, where she is also a clinician and preceptor for residents. Additionally, she is newly appointed as medical director for the hospital's Ambulatory Care Network call center.

During the COVID-19 surge in New York City, Diaz supported and joined physicians on the front lines at NYP’s Allen Hospital.

The following has been edited for brevity.

When did you decide you wanted to become a doctor? 

My mom, Angela Diaz VP&S '81, is a doctor. As the rebel of the family, I always said I wouldn't be one. I wanted to be a middle-school teacher. Almost by chance, I ended up taking a pharmaceuticals class in college and to my surprise really enjoyed it. I took another class, and another, and soon I was on track to complete the science requirements. I told my mom I would try medicine, and she said, "Great! You can be anything when you are a doctor. You can even teach." And so here I am.

Has the pandemic changed you in any way?

Professionally, it was a big growth experience. In school, you don't learn about crisis management: thinking about your staff and their mental health, changing systems so rapidly, and re-envisioning how you do things.

Personally, it was very difficult to go from a situation where patient death is a rare occurrence to having one or two every day. It's an entirely different magnitude, and you can't come out unchanged from that.

COVID-19 has also made personal for me the role of physicians as advocates for hospitalized patients. The uncertainty of what to do medically, coupled with the distancing of patients from loved ones, changed my interaction with both the patient and the family. I saw some families with experiences of privilege take it upon themselves to do research and ask questions to ensure the best possible care for their loved ones. I also saw other, equally concerned families, desperate to support their loved ones, feel that to question the doctor would be an imposition. I could feel their sense of impotence right alongside mine. I'm Dominican. Our patients are largely Dominican, so I see my family in them. In the context of a complex health care system and a disease where not enough was known, I felt a personal sense of responsibility to work extra hard to ensure they received the level of care that I would demand for my family. 

Since visitors were understandably not permitted, our patients were alone except for hospital employees. In addition to the unprecedented amount of medical care we were providing, all hospital employees had to continue to do more to meet our patient’s needs, standing in for loved ones. We kept phones charged and helped with FaceTime calls, bearing witness and holding hands as people took their last breaths. 

What recommendations do you have for institutions like CUIMC that are currently working to strengthen their diversity?

Diversity initiatives, even articles like this, shouldn't be just about optics. It's essential to understand how institutions are enriched by diversity. Having more ways of thinking represented in an institution allows that institution to better understand the people it serves—be that students or patients. I am a proponent of not just “checking off the box” of diversity, but rather embracing true inclusion and rebalancing some of society's injustices, with the understanding that this serves our interests as well. For example, knowing that only focusing on international recruits at the expense of American minorities to create diversity is not the right thing to do. Once you truly believe in the "why," that embodying a range of life experiences make us better at meeting our mission, it is easier to do whatever it takes to achieve diversity.

Diversity is also important for role modeling. Young people of any ancestry or gender can see someone like them and say, “Oh, being a doctor is an option." There's so much talent and genius in the world. To develop that talent, as opposed to wasting it, benefits us all.

What’s your favorite memory of studying at VP&S? 

Being a Hispanic woman who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I always felt like I didn't quite fit in, especially in college in the Berkshires. But coming to VP&S, I finally felt a sense of belonging. With the office of diversity and BALSO (Black and Latino Student Organization), I found people who understood me, who love my food, music, and culture. That's also where I met my partner, Keron Lezama VP&S '12. I really loved medical school at VP&S and am thrilled to be back after a few years away. Having spent eight years of my life here including medical school and residency, it feels like returning home.