Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha aims to care for children in the “best, most holistic” way

The visionary pediatrician, activist, author, and founder of Rx Kids will be receiving the 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medal at the Annual Gala

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s first tip to young people is “to find your passion. Find your thing. For me, it’s kids. That is my why. That is my North Star. That is why I went to school forever. Why I wrote a book. Why I’m here.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

“Dr. Mona,” as she prefers to go by for the children she sees in clinic, is many things. Caring pediatrician. Bestselling author of the memoir What the Eyes Don’t See. Associate Dean for Public Health and the C. S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society.

She is also the Founding Director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, an innovative partnership of Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital, which aims to decrease the impact of the Flint water crisis and serves as a national resource for best practices.

Her most recent invention is Rx Kids, a first-in-the-nation program to improve health equity and eliminate infant poverty with universal and unconditional cash prescriptions to Flint mothers and babies in their first year.

In recognition of her humanistic leadership and her groundbreaking work in addressing children’s health, Dr. Hanna-Attisha will be presented the National Humanism in Medicine Medal at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 10.

“It’s an honor. So much of what I do is literally standing on the shoulders of giants. To be able to receive this medal for my work pays tribute to the folks that walked before me and enabled me to be who I am,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “This recognition is not so much about me, but really about future generations of learners, students, and doctors who see this and see that this is something that they can do, too.”

She will be presented the medal this year alongside Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis, internationally recognized nurse scientist, sociologist, and transformational leader in global health and women’s health, and Michael J. Dowling, innovative healthcare executive and gun violence prevention advocate.

These three extraordinary leaders have placed the human connection at the center of their life’s work. Each of them has helped make care more humanistic for countless patients, family members, students, and healthcare team members. Together, they represent the 2024 theme of the Gold Gala: “Creating Healthy Communities through Humanism.”

“Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s work shows us how essential it is for healthcare team members to really understand their patients’ lives,” said Dr. Kathleen Reeves, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation. “As a fellow pediatrician, I am inspired by her innovation, her dedication, and her courage in addressing the many challenging barriers to children’s health.”


A leader made for this moment

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began in April 2014, when the city switched the public water source from the Detroit water supply to the polluted Flint River. Residents began complaining that their tap water was discolored and smelled terribly, even as city officials maintained it was safe.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Hanna-Attisha noticed increased health issues in her young patients and began to investigate. She tied elevated lead levels in patients under 5 years old to the timing of the water supply switch.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha proudly shows her Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare at the AAMC Annual Meeting.

“Pediatricians are the ultimate witnesses to failed social policies,” she said in 2019 when she accepted the Vilcek-Gold Humanism in Healthcare Award. The award is a joint honor from the Vilcek Foundation and the Gold Foundation that recognizes a foreign-born healthcare professional who has made extraordinary contributions to humanism in healthcare. “It’s not easy being a whistleblower. But I quickly realized this fight has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with my kids. Every number in my research was not just a number. It was a child.”

Dr. Hanna-Attisha partnered with community activists during the lead crisis. Together, they forced city management to acknowledge wrongdoing, switch the water supply back to a safe source, and commit to long-term public health measures to mitigate the lead poisoning.

“The residents were engaged in a way I’d rarely seen before, vibrating with a weird new energy, tense but invigorated by the feeling that we were finally doing something,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha recalled in her memoir. “And our results weren’t going to be stuffed away in a digital archive and forgotten. Our results could change our world.”

As a result of her courage and leadership, Dr. Hanna-Attisha was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and recognized as one of USA Today’s Women of the Century. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was also presented the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America.


A milestone for Flint

Flint is the poorest city in Michigan and one of the poorest in the country.

Almost 70% of kids in Flint grow up in poverty, which is five times the national average. Around 1,200 children are born every year in the city, many to families facing tough odds and severe hardship.

With the creation of Rx Kids, Dr. Hanna-Attisha is reimagining how society can help eliminate infant poverty and improve health equity.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at the launch of Rx Kids at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, Michigan.

The prenatal and first months of life are pivotal in shaping a baby’s lifelong health and development. Often, it is also the period when families struggle the most financially. With this in mind, the program offers $1,500 in cash during pregnancy and $500 per month for the first 12 months of the infant’s life.

“Physicians need to be trained to see symptoms of the larger structural problems that will bedevil a child’s health and well-being more than a simple cold ever could,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “When we know about the child’s environment, we can treat these kids in the best, most holistic way, which will leave them with much more than just a prescription for amoxicillin.”

A family legacy

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha grew up in a family with a strong belief in community and justice.

Her parents fled Iraq in the 1970s, when the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein. Both her mother and father were scientists. They were forced to choose between the only home they knew and the precious opportunity to live in peace.

They emigrated to the United Kingdom, where Dr. Hanna-Attisha was born, and then to the United States.

Mona was about 10 years old when her father showed her a photo of victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on Halabja, Iraq. Looking at that photo gave her a “heightened antenna for injustice,” she said.

Today, Dr. Hanna-Attisha uses this keen awareness as a pediatrician and scientist herself, most notably when she saw troubling signs of lead poisoning in her young patients in Flint, Michigan. Her research and advocacy helped uncover the city’s tainted water system and call national attention to the crisis.

“To understand me as a doctor and to understand what I did and do in Flint, you have to understand me as a person and where I came from,” said Dr. Hanna-Attisha. “That immigrant perspective defines who I am and how I see the world, and how I practice as a physician.”


The crucial link between environment and health

As a young child, Dr. Hanna-Attisha wanted to become a journalist.

As she grew older, she became involved in environmental activism in high school. It was there that she arrived at a fundamental understanding that would change the trajectory of her life.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was drawn to pediatrics. Kids are her “why.”

Dr. Hanna-Attisha recalled seeing “the connection between the environment and health — and then realizing that it’s the kids that are the most impacted.”

She was drawn to pediatrics.

“Being a pediatrician — perhaps more than any other kind of doctor — means being an advocate for your patient,” she explained. “It means using your voice to speak up for kids. We are charged with the duty of keeping these kids healthy.”

Dr. Hanna-Attisha received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health from the University of Michigan and her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She completed her residency at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.

Her commitment to humanism in healthcare was evident in her work early on. In 2011, as a faculty member at MSU’s College of Human Medicine, Dr. Hanna-Attisha was recognized as a role model of humanistic care and inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. Created by the Gold Foundation, the honor society has more than 160 chapters at medical schools and residency programs.

“The Gold Foundation and its mission were something that everybody knew about, and it was a badge of honor to be part of GHHS. It was a reminder of why we’re in medicine,” she said. “This is why we went to school forever. This is why we’re treating patients and not forgetting that it’s the humanism, it’s the people that are at the root of it.”

Finding the joy

For Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the work of medicine can often feel siloed, but it cannot be done alone.

“It is a team sport, and our team is often found in the most unexpected places. They’re not always in our profession. My team members were folks in different disciplines. They were moms and dads, pastors, journalists, social workers, lawyers and engineers,” she said.

One personal mentor and hero of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s is the late Dr. Bonita F. Stanton, Founding Dean of Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. Dr. Stanton was an extraordinary leader, educator, physician, and humanist whose decades-long career changed medical education for the better. She was posthumously honored with the Gold Foundation’s Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz Humanism in Healthcare Award.

“Dr. Stanton was my chair when I was a resident, and when I was a junior faculty, she was the first person to hire me. She was an amazing woman leader who was very supportive when I wanted to go back and get my public health degree after I had my babies,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.

In addition to gaining inspiration from those around her, Dr. Hanna-Attisha enjoys spending time with her daughters and reading a book per week.

Her greatest wellness practice is loving what she does.

Children light up her world — like the young patient who told her he wants to be a guitar-playing weatherman when he grows up.

“My work makes me well. If I wasn’t doing my work and being able to make an impact in people’s lives, I wouldn’t be well either,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “There’s ups and downs, but it is joyful, privileged work.”

Learn about the other two 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis and Michael Dowling. All were celebrated at the 2024 Annual Gala in New York City. 

Irene Zampetoulas, MPA

Communications Associate

Supports the Foundation's marketing and communications initiatives, including writing stories, updating social media, crafting our messages, and more.