Women in Wellness: Dr. Anjali Mahoney on the five lifestyle tweaks that will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing

January 10, 2024

By Wanda Malhotra
Originally published in Authority Magazine

Today, more than ever, wellness is at the forefront of societal discussions. From mental health to physical well-being, women are making significant strides in bringing about change, introducing innovative solutions, and setting new standards. Despite facing unique challenges, they break barriers, inspire communities, and are reshaping the very definition of health and wellness. In this series called women in wellness we are talking to women doctors, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, fitness trainers, researchers, health experts, coaches, and other wellness professionals to share their stories and insights. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Anjali Mahoney, MD, MPH, FAAFP.

Dr. Anjali Mahoney is the Chief Medical Officer of Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center that provides care to over 45,000 people across the greater Los Angeles Area through a network of 17 sites, 3 mobile clinics and an expansive street medicine program. She is a family physician who works closely with Clinic staff to prevent disease among Clinic patients, address social factors that influence health, and work towards health equity. Dr. Mahoney is fluent in Spanish and also has a master’s degree in public health from the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. She was also a National Health Service Corps Scholar and is a California Health Care Foundation Leadership Fellow and a member of the American Board of Family Medicine Journal Club. She was recognized with a Woman of the Year award in 2019 from U.S. Rep. Lou Correa.

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Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, and I knew I wanted to be a physician when I was 12 years old. But I didn’t exactly take a straight path to my dream career. After graduating from UCLA but before attending medical school, I held a few different jobs that helped define how I would eventually practice medicine.

Right after college, I worked for the U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services in Washington D.C., where I learned about health care policy. Then I joined the Peace Corps as a Health and Sanitation Volunteer. Working in a rural village in the mountains of Southern Morocco, I saw firsthand the negative consequences to a population that lives without adequate access to health care — including a 2-hour ride down a dusty road in the back of a pickup truck to the closest doctor. After returning to the U.S., I became a Program Coordinator at the Children’s Clinic in Long Beach, where I learned about (and fell in love with) the community health center model. While earning my Masters of Public Health at Tulane, I studied the public health systems in Cuba and Jamaica and was exposed to visionary professors like Paul Farmer, who helped to pioneer community-based treatment protocols to deliver high-quality health care to people living in poverty. All this culminated in my decision to attend medical school at the University of Vermont, where I was deeply influenced by the school’s focus on providing primary care to refugees. Through my residency and after, I continued to work with underserved populations in California in Ventura County, the Central Valley and Orange County before my family and I returned to the South Bay to be close to my parents.

My journey has taught me what it means for populations to live without access to primary health care, housing, electricity, healthy food and basic human rights. I want to dedicate my life to ensuring populations that don’t have a voice can access these vital resources and services. That is why I work with Venice Family Clinic: We are a community health center that works to achieve health equity, food security and housing, and we are doing everything we can to ensure our communities have access to these basic needs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I love learning about and from new cultures. That is a big part of what makes my work so fulfilling and exciting every day.

My favorite experience as a doctor involved delivering a baby with a Somali Bantu family. The hospital prioritized cultural sensitivity and making sure that the expectant mother had what she needed to deliver her baby comfortably, including making it possible for all the women from her community to be present at the delivery. As she began to give birth, the women began chanting and beating on drums — it was such a magical experience. From that ritual, I felt so connected to this community and the new life that my patient brought into the world.

That experience taught me that it takes a village (literally) to care for people. It was also an important reminder that culture defines people, and that respecting cultural beliefs is essential to providing good care.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As a new doctor in a rural area, I once had a diabetic patient that I would see in a small field clinic. He attended our monthly appointments religiously, but every time I saw him his blood sugar levels were out of control, his blood pressure was concerningly high and he was never able to provide me with his recent blood sugar history or numbers.

I would talk to him regularly about the value of healthy food, exercise and taking his medications, and I consulted my colleagues about his noncompliance and asked their advice on getting his sugar and blood pressure under control. One day, after a year of seeing this patient, I asked him why he still came to see me every month if he didn’t seem to want to follow the regimen that I had established for him.

His response was eye-opening: “Doc, I wake up at 4 a.m. every day and go out into the fields to work so I can survive. I try to do what you tell me, but I live in a tent in the fields with no electricity. I love how much you care about me, but I didn’t want to disappoint you by telling you that I can’t pick up the insulin because the pharmacist said it needs to be refrigerated. I also don’t have money to buy healthy food or even a way to cook it, so I just keep coming to you in the hope that there is something else you can do to help me.”

As a new doctor, I had never thought to ask my patient where or how he lived or what else he needs from me to help him. This was my first lesson in the importance of social determinants of health — the non-medical factors that affect health outcomes including the conditions in which people are born, live, learn, work and play in a person’s overall health. And it taught me what I never learned in medical school: That each patient’s personal story is a big part of their treatment, and that it’s vital for doctors to ask patients the right questions.

Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

At Venice Family Clinic, we focus on treating our patients as whole people. In addition to providing high-quality and comprehensive primary care to people in need, we assist in addressing the social determinants and factors that contribute to our patients’ overall health. This includes providing healthy food through regular free food distributions, mental and physical health support through a variety of Clinic programs and housing and social equity advocacy, among the Clinic’s many other services. As Chief Medical Officer, I get the opportunity to help create programs that improve people’s lives and grow our reach while doing my part as a physician to see patients and take care of them.

We are particularly proud of our pioneering street medicine program that helps us serve almost 5,000 people experiencing homelessness across Los Angeles with 10 outreach teams and 3 mobile clinics. Through street medicine outreach we can meet people where they are and connect them directly with the resources they need — whether it’s medical care, food, behavioral health, harm reduction services, health education, housing support or just a friendly face to talk to. For many, we become a medical home where they can come to get all their needs met. And as a Clinic, we are continuing to grow our reach where we are most needed to improve the lives of as many people as we can.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?

1. Don’t forget to breathe (and occasionally look away from your screen):
This is my mantra to myself. As Americans, we rush through life at warp speed with so many things coming at us all the time. People have forgotten how important it is to connect, have a conversation or a healthy debate and smell the roses. My advice: Slow down, breathe, look around and take in the world around you. Doing these things will make us all healthier. We all also need to look away from our screens to understand our differences, rather than digging in on them.

2. An apple a day keeps the doctor away:
Healthy food is so important. It can be expensive, but California has some amazing programs to help people put food on the table. Venice Family Clinic also has free food markets where we give out bags of fresh fruits and vegetables to help make it easier for our patients and the community to make healthy choices. Making healthier choices when we eat can make all the difference in terms of overall health.

3. Sleep is life:
It’s no secret that most people don’t get enough sleep. 8 hours is a healthy minimum, but we all spend so much time rushing through life (and on our screens) that we sacrifice sleep. When I was a young doctor, I made the same mistake. I would get 4–5 hours of sleep per night and power through, thinking “I’ll sleep when I am dead.” It wasn’t until I was hospitalized with a heart issue that I realized if I don’t sleep more, I might actually end up dead as a result. I’ve improved my habits since then, and my qualify of life and overall health have improved along with them.

4. Exercise is medicine:
Small changes in physical activity make a big difference in health. My patients always tell me they don’t have time to exercise. My advice: Start small. Parking a little farther away from your destination so you’re forced to walk or committing to just 10 minutes of core exercises a day are small steps that will make such a difference in your health and well-being.

5. We all need community:
There is an epidemic of loneliness in the world, and it is making us sick. It seems we have lost track of how important a sense of community is for our physical and mental health. Creating a deeper connection to our neighbors and communities would improve population health and lead to more kindness, making the world a better place.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would create more walkable neighborhoods and more affordable farmers markets. Healthy food and exercise are the keys to health and wellness: Many “blue zones,” or areas of the world where people have longer life expectancies and lower rates of chronic disease, are communities with walkable neighborhoods and reliable access to fresh, affordable food.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff so much.
When you’re young, you take freedom and health for granted. As you get older, it seems like health often wanes, the responsibilities start piling up and you appreciate the time you have regardless of the minor concerns that inevitably crop up.

2. Take time for yourself. Work isn’t everything.
Sometimes it’s okay to be good enough. I have always been an overachiever and a perfectionist. Now that I am a mother, and especially when I see the pressures facing my children, I try to focus less on achievement and more on joy and happiness.

3. Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.
I have always been a planner, but life often throws curveballs your way and it’s how you manage them that defines success and resilience. It’s okay to fail. Pick yourself back up and try again.

4. Time is everything.
There is never enough time, so cherish the little time you have. Do what you love. Be happy. Find your passion and live it.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

They are all important. I am a vegetarian because I care about animals and the environment. I want my kids to grow up in a safe and sustainable world. That means we as a species must do better to slow down destructive activities and preserve the planet we love. Our current pace of living is unsustainable, and it’s time that we get back to the basics: Planting local gardens, consuming fresh food and limiting processed products, taking time to walk places, spending less time on screens, and adopting more electric vehicles. If we don’t work on it together, we won’t get very far.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn, and please also visit our Clinic website, venicefamilyclinic.org or follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram or LinkedIn.