Orlando Health Pediatrician Blends Medicine, Technology And A Commitment To Equity

Dr. Tolu Adebanjo McKenzie

ORLANDO – When she was a precocious girl, home from school in the summer, Tolu Adebanjo McKenzie’s father would sometimes drop her off at the Southwest Branch of the Orange County Library on his way to his office. There, she would happily spend the day with a stack of books, reading everything from the Babysitters’ Club to science texts. The science books were a special interest, because from the time she was four years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.

Today, Dr. McKenzie, is a board-certified pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, where she’s just been named as the Assistant Vice President of Optimization for Orlando Health. She is also a preventive medicine physician, has a master’s degree in public health and spent two years in post-graduate fellowship training at the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, where she travelled the world combatting the Zika virus and other infectious diseases. Add to that her role at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine where she teaches about health equity and leads the medical mentorship program that focuses on encouraging racially, socially, or economically disadvantaged students achieve their own dreams of going into medicine.

And somehow all of these interests blend together.

“Being able to zoom in and zoom out of looking at a problem is really interesting,” said Dr. McKenzie. “As a preventive medicine physician, my job is to zoom out and look at the health of the population, that’s my patient. And then as a pediatrician, my patient is an individual, so I have to zoom in and look closely at the specific person.”

At UCF’s College of Medicine, Dr. McKenzie teaches about health equity. “How do we address health disparities, and how do we leverage emerging technologies like digital health and informatics with preventative health to address those disparities. It’s a broad umbrella of health and equity.”

Among the many topics that capture Dr. McKenzie’s interest is the issue of maternal morbidity – mothers dying in childbirth – and how that is related to race.

“I was almost a statistic myself,” she said.

Two years ago, during her second pregnancy, Dr. McKenzie developed severe preeclampsia, a dangerous condition in which the mother experiences a sudden rise in blood pressure that can lead to seizure, stroke, organ failure and even death of the mother and baby.

“I was in the hospital for a month,” she said. “My son was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a month. He was born premature. And so, when I looked at it, I thought as a physician I have high healthy literacy and high socio-economic status. And yet, I still experienced this outcome. It really speaks to all those structural determinants, all of those ‘isms’ and how they affect health.

“And so, these issues really speak to me.”

Improving the diversity in medicine is one way to help improve health inequities, said Dr. McKenzie. “We know that when there is education and physician concordance, data shows that there are better health outcomes. And so, one of the things that I have been really passionate about over the years is really focusing on how do we increase the diversity in medicine? How do we improve the pathway to medicine?”

Dr. McKenzie comes from a fortunate background in many ways. Both her parents are professionals, her mother an investment banker and her father a material engineer with a doctorate from Stanford University. When she was four years old, her parents told her that one of her young friends had become seriously ill and was in the hospital.

She made a pronouncement almost immediately: “I am going to become a doctor for children.”

Her father always told her that in order to accomplish her dream she would need to work harder than the other kids, so there would never be any question about whether she was the best. Some people might look at a challenge and find it discouraging, others find it inspiring.

“I remember once when I was in college, I did horrible on my physics test. I called my dad and told him I bombed on this test, and now I am not going to get into medical school, so I’ll need to find another major.

“He told me, ‘You were made for this.’ Hearing my dad say that, having my parents encourage me and believe in me, the mentors that I have had, and now being in this position when I can give back so that other people who look like me can see somebody who looks like them in this field means so much.”

Dr. McKenzie isn’t certain about what the future holds. “Being a Type A Personality, it’s really hard for me to embrace uncertainty,” she said with a laugh. “I know I am going to work very hard, because those who came before me had to work even harder. And I am going to stay true to my values and my passion. I have a friend who says that she wants to bloom where she’s planted, and I am feeling that. My goal is to support the work of Orlando Health and to do well by my patients.”