University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Outdoor photo of Stephanie Zhou
Photo by Julia Soudat

How the Experience of Living in Poverty Has Made Me a Better Doctor

It’s all about what I call “empathic privilege”

Dr. Stephanie Zhou (MSc/MD 2018) recently published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that went viral: Zhou, who had received the support of bursaries, wrote about how her socioeconomic background made her feel isolated in medical school but later helped her empathize with many of her patients. Below are three excerpts from “Underprivilege as Privilege.”

My family was supported by a homeless shelter before we moved into subsidized housing. Food came from the food bank or soup kitchens. Clothing was second-hand from the church donation bins. To me, these were all part of a normal life, but in the context of privilege, these aspects suddenly became salient as a mark of “underprivilege.” Placed at a school attended by mostly middle-class students, this underprivileged experience became part of my identity, and to be different was incredibly isolating.


It wasn’t until I left medical school that these sentiments began to change. I saw patients who did not take their medications because they were too expensive. I saw myself and the experiences of my family in the lives of these patients, and I realized that I did fit into medicine – I fit in with my patients.

To come from this background grants a different, more subtle form of privilege beyond that of wealth and social networks. I call it an “empathic privilege” that allows one to be more cognizant of the social determinants of health that patients often leave unspoken when seeking medical care.


I encourage medical students and practising physicians to be open about their stories, to humanize the identity of medicine so that it doesn’t seem so lofty to those at a lower starting line – to show that a lived experience in poverty is valued by medical schools as much as, if not more than, having volunteered at a homeless shelter.

Recent Posts

Photo of front campus field and Convocation Hall with flower emoji illustrations floating above

Clearing the Air

U of T wants to drastically cut carbon emissions by 2050. It’s enlisting on-campus ingenuity for help

Abstract illustration showing a red-coloured body and face, with small black and white pieces flowing from inside body out of the mouth, and the U.S. Capitol Building dangling on puppet strings from one hand

The Extremism Machine

Online disinformation poses a danger to society. Researchers at U of T’s Citizen Lab are tracking it – and trying to figure out how to stop it

Prof. Mark V. Campbell with a beige background and red lighting

Charting Hip Hop’s Course

Professor Mark V. Campbell grew up during the early years of rap music. Now, he is helping preserve Canadian hip-hop culture for future generations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. One Response to “ How the Experience of Living in Poverty Has Made Me a Better Doctor ”

  2. J. Restrepo, Ph.D. ( or Zhou LiAn ) says:

    I totally agree with Dr. Zhou on the effects of income on health care. Think about the health improvements we could achieve if everyone in society could see a health-care provider regularly, have their basics checked, history reviewed, and prompt action taken to keep them healthy. Thank you for bringing a more humanistic approach to medicine again. Keep up the good work!