At the Forefront of Reducing Health Disparities in Kidney Disease Outcomes: Meet Clinician-Researcher Dr. Tanya Johns

As a child growing up in Jamaica, Dr. Tanya Johns knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up – a doctor. And she never wavered. Actually, it was either a reggae artist or a doctor. She quickly discovered that she was more suited to the latter.

Dr. Johns, who is an associate professor of medicine in the division of nephrology at Montefiore Einstein and medical director of its kidney care program, specializes in the care of patients with various kidney disorders. Her over-arching research goal is to increase health equity and improve outcomes for all patients with kidney disease. 

We recently met with Dr. Johns to discuss her work and her hopes for the future of health equity. Following are excerpts from our interview.

What and/or who inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?

That’s a tough question. It’s really hard to pinpoint one thing or one person that inspired me to pursue a career in medicine. There have definitely been notable people and events throughout my life that have inspired me. First and foremost are my parents. They always encouraged me to believe in myself, instilling in me that anything was possible with hard work and determination. My grandmother was also a significant influence.  

My teachers, both in the U.S. and Jamaica, were also important role models. I remember one of my chemistry teachers gave me a book about Marie Curie when he saw that I had an aptitude for science. And from there, my career path was set.

Why did you decide to focus on nephrology?

In medical school, I found kidney physiology complex and intriguing. I have always been drawn to the more complicated subjects in medicine. During residency I discovered that nephrologists were some of the most knowledgeable and caring physicians.

Physicians say, “a good nephrologist is a master clinician.” There is so much overlap with other clinical areas. By knowing the kidney, you also know cardiology, rheumatology, endocrinology, etc. That further drew me to the field.

And finally, in residency and once I decided to pursue a nephrology fellowship, I quickly discovered that a lot of people impacted by kidney disease were from racial backgrounds similar to my own. I observed how much they appreciated seeing someone who looked like them taking care of them. That’s been a major source of inspiration for me, and why I love this field.

Describe your health disparities research. What do you hope will change as a result?

Witnessing the health disparities in kidney disease, which impacts African Americans and Hispanics disproportionately compared to white individuals, informs my work every day. My research aims to understand some of the social factors behind this and elucidate novel risk factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in kidney disease to develop interventions that will reduce health inequities.

In the past, I have evaluated health care delivery models to improve health outcomes in minority populations. My current research, which is funded by a K23 grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), examines how diet and inflammation contribute to kidney disease progression in minority populations. Our hope is that from this research we can develop culturally tailored dietary/ lifestyle interventions that could support kidney health.

Who are your role models in medicine?

Among my colleagues there are so many and I am truly grateful to all of them.

One of my major role models is Dr. Michal Melamed, mentor extraordinaire and a great advocate for me. She is the reason my research career got off the ground.

Though I did a research fellowship at Johns Hopkins supported by a T32 grant and also received a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, when I started at Montefiore in 2013, I was a clinician educator; I was not involved in any research. Dr. Melamed, knowing about my background and interest, reached out and invited me to participate in some of her research projects. I then wrote a couple of grants and was fortunate to secure grant funding. I received a KL2 grant with Dr. Melamed as my primary mentor.

Dr. Yaron Tomer was also an instrumental figure in my research career. When he joined Montefiore Einstein as chair of the department of medicine, he called me into his office and said that he heard that I was a talented junior faculty member and that if I wanted to pursue a research career, he would fully support me by giving me protected time do research and apply for grants even though I had no grant funding. He made it all possible.

And our Division Chief Dr. Michael Ross has been an exceptional mentor and advocate. So, I feel very supported and motivated to continue my path as a clinical researcher and serve as a mentor to others.