How One Physician Battles Diabetes in the Chinese American Community
Dr. George Liu, MD, PhD is a leader in the Chinese community in New York City as a practicing endocrinologist and the founder and president of the Asian Diabetes Center in New York City and CAIPA (Coalition of Asian-American Independent Physicians Association). He received his B.A. in Plant Biology from National Taiwan University and his M.D. from Weill Cornell Medicine, as well as his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Notre Dame.
The Asian Diabetes Center provides medical care, counseling, and insulin pumps for diabetes patients, battling a disease that is posing a significant public health concern for the Chinese community. CAIPA has helped hundreds of physicians in the Asian-American community navigate negotiations with insurance companies.
Dr. Liu immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan and planned a career in basic science research, but once he attended medical school to further his research, he developed a passion for clinical medicine and immigrant health. Dr. Liu has since devoted his medical career to community health, serving both patients and physicians in his cultural environment. I have attended a number of CAIPA’s social events such as concerts and banquets that bring together families of Chinese American doctors, and was lucky to have an hour of conversation with the doctor who spearheaded it all. Dr. Liu shares with us his path to medicine, his motivation for service, and his experience creating organizations to tackle the problems of diabetes and physician rights in the Chinese American community:
E: What was your dream career growing up? How did you go after it?
Dr. Liu: I always thought I would give back to the community through scientific research. Many breakthroughs in scientific research were happening during my time, such as the development of recombinant DNA in 1972. I graduated from National Taiwan University with a degree in plant sciences, and earned my PhD in biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. I flew to Indiana from Taiwan barely knowing any English. In between the two, I completed one year of required military service in the National Taiwanese Air force. After completing my PhD, I worked as a research assistant at Rockefeller University in New York.
E: What did you gain from military service?
Dr. Liu: I worked side by side with all sorts of people, including those that had minimal education. We farmed, grew soybeans and rice, and learned a lot about how farmers lived. It allowed me to develop a deeper understand for human societies.
E: When did you decide to pursue medicine?
Dr. Liu: When I received a bigger research grant at Rockefeller, I was wondering if there was anything I could do to better my research. Since my field of interest was cholesterol metabolism, I thought of going to medical school to learn more deeply about cholesterol and human biochemistry.
E: What was applying to medical school like as a PhD student?
Dr. Liu: I was so clueless—I walked up to the librarian, as we had no Google back then, and asked him what I needed to do to get into medical school. He told me, “You’re too late. You didn’t take the MCAT, amongst many other things needed for an application.”
I then asked the librarian back: “Do all schools need an MCAT?” He then helped me look up 5 schools in the U.S. that didn’t require the MCAT for PhD students. But since they required me to spend another 2 years converting my PhD to MD, I decided that was too much trouble and applied traditionally to Weill Cornell Medicine, which was right next door to Rockefeller.
E: After earning your MD from Weill Cornell in 1978, how did you transition from a full-time research scientist to a practicing physician?
Dr. Liu: During my PhD years, I was in the lab all day, rarely needing to ever speak and write in English. I realized that to be a successful research scientist, you needed good presentation skills. At the time, I felt like my below-par English was going to keep me from being any more than a mediocre scientist. So I opened up my own practice in Chinatown, NYC instead. I would rather be the best doctor I can be in the Chinese-speaking community, than a mediocre researcher.
E: What does CAIPA do for the Chinese-American medical community in New York City?
Dr. Liu: A lot of insurance companies don’t take new graduates anymore because the physician community is increasing rapidly. CAIPA has already has contracts with insurance companies, so we can enroll physicians with insurance companies in less than 2 months. Without CAIPA, physicians may have to wait over 8 months. CAIPA has also created a collaborative and loving community for foreign medical graduates and Chinese American doctors educated in American medical schools through cultural and social events, such as the annual winter banquet and art appreciation festivals held in Carnegie Hall.
E: What is the difference between foreign medical graduates and American educated doctors in CAIPA?
Dr. Liu: Many older physicians come from Mainland China and Southeast Asia. Their many years of experience allow them to connect better with patients from their homelands. Our younger physicians from American medical schools have strong backgrounds that can help support our physician groups.
E: What is the Asian Diabetes Center and why did you start it?
Dr. Liu: Diabetes is one of the most serious epidemics in the Chinese American population. Over 85.7% of the Chinese population over the age of 65 are either diabetic or pre-diabetic, greater than the 15% affected in the general population. We have subspecialists, nutritionists, cardiologists, podiatrists, kidney specialists, surgeons, and endocrinologists. The center also provides crucial services to diabetic patients, like nutritional counseling and insulin pumps.
E: What do you think is the cause of the diabetes epidemic in the Chinese community?
Dr. Liu: Diet. In Chinese food, zho fun mien fan (porridge, noodles, rice) are sources of high carbs—lethal for the diabetic patient. Also, many patients take western and Chinese medication simultaneously without worrying about drug interaction. This leads to potential damage to kidneys and other organs.
E: You are infamous for spending hours past midnight seeing patients, according to your Vitals.com patient reviews. How would you respond to these reviews?
Dr. Liu: One day, I was working until 5 AM. I saw the sun rise from my office window—it was amusing. This happens because I have a lot of patients traveling from other states to see me. Some of my patients who are restaurant workers drive over at midnight because they don’t have any other free times in their daily work and family schedules. So they really appreciate it when I give them special hours—when the rest of the world is asleep.