INTERVIEW WITH BARI CUNNINGHAM, MD
What guided your decision to go into medicine and specifically, your chosen field?
I feel as if medicine is in my DNA as I was born into a family of physicians; my grandfather, father, great uncle, brother, husband are/were MDs. We used to joke that between all of our specialties (including internal medicine/rheumatology, dermatology/pediatric dermatology, plastic surgery/hand surgery, emergency medicine, family practice, and ophthalmology) we could run a family owned multispecialty clinic. Although never pushed or pressured by my family, I honestly do not remember ever considering any other profession. When I was a young child, weekends were spent following my physician father while he rounded on his patients in the hospital and I sat patiently at the nurses’ station while he cared for his sick hospitalized patients. Back at the car after his rounds, I would pepper him with questions about what was wrong, and what could be done to help them.
When I started medical school at Emory University, I loved every rotation making the decision of which field to pursue extremely challenging. I was randomly (or was it fate?) assigned to a dermatologist as my faculty mentor/advisor which included regularly shadowing her in her dermatology clinic and attending her medical school didactic lectures and it was then that I realized the joy of being a dermatologist. I am a visual learner so I enjoy the ability to see what is wrong or ailing the patient rather than having to order expensive or specialized tests/invasive procedures to diagnose a condition. Plus, it is gratifying to be able to help most every patient who comes in. There is rarely a dermatologic condition that can’t be improved or cured.
“The health equity gap is widening, and the need for access to reliable and accurate medical information is greater than ever.”
Have you ever been a patient, and if so, what did it teach you?
First of all, I learned that I was a terrible patient! I was hospitalized for over a week with a mystery tropical infectious disease I acquired while traveling in South America. I learned how valuable it was to have physicians who listened and kept an open mind as they worked through the rarest of possibilities only to admit they were unable to determine the exact cause of my illness. The vulnerability and unknown prognosis made for a stressful few weeks but I learned how scary it can be when patients do not have a proper diagnosis and how patients can sometimes act out of fear.
What can a patient expect when they have you as a doctor?
I will listen to them and be present in the moment at all times, resisting the temptation to let the mind wander to other patients or problems. When I am with the patient, I promise to be fully present. I will always treat them with respect and how I would want to be treated myself or my family. I am a good listener; I tend to joke that there is a reason we have 2 ears and only one mouth!
What is your favorite activity outside of work?
I love whitewater rafting and kayaking down remote and scenic rivers; I enjoy being immersed in nature, cut off from civilization and truly unplugged without any technology or man-made distractions. I enjoy the thrill of the rapids but also the peace, serenity and beauty of the river and mountains and endless sky. Falling asleep to the sound of the rushing river and the sky filled with the swoosh of the milky way and shooting stars is hard to beat. I enjoy the camaraderie with other rafters and guides and the natural progression of connection thru a week-long rafting trip in a remote region cut off from civilization. I am always surprised and inspired by what I learn, who I encounter, and why they chose to escape on the river.
You recently joined the Doctorpedia team as a Founding Medical Partner and Chief Medical Officer of the Dermatology Channel. What about Doctorpedia resonates with your personal and professional mission?
The fact that Doctorpedia democratizes information by providing it free to anyone looking and delivering it in an accessible, digestible format by respected physicians with the goal of providing accurate, reliable medical information resonates with me.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), “Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”
Doctorpedia, by increasing access to free, accessible quality medical information delivered by doctors, creates a community where everyone has an equal opportunity to obtain information to help to live the healthiest life possible. For many reasons, not every person has access to equal care or equitable outcomes. This has become especially visible during the COVID-19 pandemic; the health crisis is disproportionately affecting certain communities, highlighting the lack of health equity in our county. The health equity gap is widening, and the need for access to reliable and accurate medical information is greater than ever.
“When I am with the patient, I promise to be fully present. I will always treat them with respect and how I would want to be treated myself or my family.”
What do you think about the health and wellness information and resources available online?
Health and wellness information available online is truly overwhelming and cumbersome to navigate. The internet is bloated with misinformation and snake oil salesmen trying to sell to sometimes desperate patients. As doctors we spend so much of our day correcting the misinformation that patients bring into the visit, time that could be better spent properly diagnosing and treating the patient and inspiring the patients in their wellness journey.
If you could spend a day with any person in the world (dead or alive) – who would you choose?
My beautiful, wise, kind, and funny octogenarian mom. She is my favorite person to spend time with and I cherish every moment with her and am well-aware of the fleeting nature of life. She makes me laugh and tends to see the best in people!
What would you do for a living if you weren’t a doctor?
I am an avid outdoors person and love to hike, walk, garden and enjoy exploring nature through travel. If I were not a doctor, I would love to be a naturalist guide or park ranger. I have also always loved the idea of being a labor and delivery nurse. The idea of making the mom comfortable, supporting her thru one of the most meaningful and challenging days of her life while helping to bring a new human into this world seems like a great way to spend a day!
What were your previous roles in healthcare and what did you learn from them?
My earliest years as a Dermatologist were spent as a full time academic pediatric dermatologist in a large teaching hospital and university setting where I served as Director of Pediatric Dermatologic Surgery and Laser therapy. Supervising medical students, residents, and fellows taught me the importance of relationships and camaraderie making life-long friends and trusted colleagues. I am a doctor’s doctor. I have tremendous respect for the field of medicine, for the dedication and sacrifices required to become a doctor. There is no more noble profession.
Bari Cunningham, MD
Dr. Cunningham is a board certified and nationally recognized dermatologist and one of only a few hundred doctors in the nation who is double Board Certified in Dermatology and Pediatric Dermatology. In addition to being the Co-founder of Comprehensive Dermatology, Dr. Cunningham is a Doctorpedia Founding Medical Partner and Chief Medical Officer of the Dermatology Channel.