Why choose between medicine and law if you can do both?
When the late family medicine physician Herbert Constantine, MD, took a few steps to demonstrate to his Brown medical students the importance of making medicine all-inclusive, the lessons had a lasting impact on Eli Avila ’81 MD’86, JD, MPH.
“When we were taking on the role of a rural doctor during our community medicine rotation, Professor Constantine would tell us, ‘You will have to do research and collect data,’” Avila recalls. “‘Also, I don’t want you wearing anything fancy. Wear a shirt and khakis. Be humble.’ That spoke to my core.”
Avila, who was born in New York City and grew up in the NYC Housing Authority operated Amsterdam Houses, has carried those core values with him through a joint legal and medical career that has seen him become the 53rd president of the American College of Legal Medicine—and the first Latino president in the society’s 64 years. “We didn’t see very many people of color or women in the ACLM,” Avila says. “That has changed with great diversity in the executive committee and the fellows.”
The organization also has gained a wider member-based variety of medical specialties. “At its inception, the ACLM was primarily composed of forensic pathologists who chose to become attorneys,” Avila says.
“Throughout the past six decades, that has changed. Now the ACLM has physician-attorney members from every subspecialty of medicine and dentistry.”
That includes public health law, which has been the main thrust of Avila’s push for medical-legal scholarship at the ACLM during the last decade. “The COVID-19 pandemic and its legal sequelae brought to light this often-unknown medical-legal specialty, as our elected officials and public health organizations were challenged to maintain society—both safe and civilized,” he says.
Avila joined the ACLM in 1999, when he was simultaneously a first-year law student at St. John’s University School of Law and an attending ophthalmologist at Columbia. “I got to know more about law, hospital medicine, and public health,” he says. He went on to complete an MPH and a fellowship in occupational and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai. “I wanted to find the nexus of law and medicine,” he says.
In addition to private legal practice work and a stint as an associate general counsel for a biotechnology company, Avila’s career has included several forays into public service, including secretary of health of Pennsylvania, where he mediated constitutional issues regarding public health and health equity between the White House and the commonwealth; commissioner of health in Orange County, NY; and, now, chief medical officer at the US Army’s historic Watervliet Arsenal.
Avila’s enthusiasm for taking on a variety of tasks in his professional career is reminiscent of his intro to medical school. “It was a scary moment—I liked everything, and didn’t want to specialize in just one field,” he recalls. “I like ophthalmology because you really have to know medicine and surgery … and you get to use the greatest tools.”
He also enjoyed the immediate impact on patient quality of life that comes with eye surgery success. “If someone is not able to see due to a cataract, that is a relatively short procedure and it’s a great thing to have a patient be able to see,” he says.
Given the complexities of the MD/JD path, Avila has wholeheartedly enjoyed opportunities to counsel Brown students—much as Constantine did for Avila and his peers. “I let them know about the sacrifices needed to do well on the MCAT and LSAT and the intricacies of deductive and inductive thought to succeed in both professions,” he says. Avila’s first steps down that path happened in Providence. “Brown is so integral to the state of Rhode Island,” he says.
“I am grateful Brown valued someone who didn’t have the connections coming out of public housing in New York and opened a door of opportunity for me to succeed.”