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The future lies in preventive healthcare - an alumna story of Ruhi Agarwala

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She came a long way and travelled all over the world to become the founder of several health start-ups she is now. Dr. Ruhi Agarwala is currently running businesses in Functional Medicine and healthy food and drinks: “If you eat good quality, nutritious food, your body knows how to heal itself.”

“As a child, my interest lay more in business than in healthcare”, Ruhi Agarwala admits. “To be completely honest, my father wanted me to study medicine. It all started from there.” From 2004 till 2010 she studied medicine and surgery at Tianjin Medical University in northeastern China, picking up Mandarin along the way. “The courses were in English, but apart from that very little people speak English in China”, Ruhi Agarwala found out. Mandarin is now one of the seven languages she can speak. 

Medical practice, however, was not her greatest love. “I became more interested in the preventive side of healthcare and started exploring courses all over the world. The study of Public Health in India was very conventional and didn’t excite me much.” What did excite her, however, were Masters in Global Health both in Sweden and at Maastricht University. Ruhi Agarwala: “The reason why I chose Maastricht was that they offered problem-based learning and that there were many electives to choose from, including internships in one of 25 countries. On top they offered a scholarship, so it was the perfect package for me.”

Corona and chronic diseases
Just like the rest of the world, India is struck by the corona virus. “We’re currently in a 21-day lockdown”, Ruhi Agarwala explains. “Although every death is one too many, the infection rates are still controlled here, especially compared to countries in Europe and to the United States.”

“What you see is that many of the people dying from corona have comorbidities, like respiratory diseases, asthma, hypertension, diabetes and autoimmune conditions. When I started my masters in global health I became curious how we could prevent these chronic diseases. “You can screen patients and catch the disease early on, but wouldn’t it be better if you could turn the disease around?”

Lifestyle changes
That prevention thinking laid the basis of her current start-up in ‘Functional Medicine’, the companies Functional Medicine Clinic and Dr. Juice . “My ultimate ambition is that more  people become aware that chronic conditions can be reversed and they don’t need to be on drugs all their life. The lifestyle changes can be difficult but it's not impossible especially when ‘health’ is the only outcome. The Dutch, for instance, are used to eating bread twice a day. Imagine that you would have to replace that by other food, greens or healthy grains for instance. For many people that would be challenging.” But they won’t mind giving that up when health and wellness becomes priority in life.

On her website Ruhi Agarwala uses the following example: “Consider a patient suffering from an eczema rash. Conventional medicine would prescribe a steroid cream to reduce the itching and discoloration of the rash. Functional medicine would identify the food or environmental allergy that is causing the body to develop the rash and remove it from the diet or environment.”

Dutch work experience
 After her studies in Maastricht, Ruhi Agarwala first started working with a Dutch medical start-up. She would definitely recommend this work experience to other alumni in The Netherlands. Ruhi Agarwala: “But to be able to get a job in The Netherlands you really have to take every opportunity to interact with people. In the field of Global Health there aren’t many jobs available, and without the knowledge of the Dutch language it is even more difficult.”

Looking back she especially appreciates the problem-based learning at Maastricht University. “With students coming from all over the world, you get a lot of different viewpoints. It is really peer-learning. It greatly developed my analytical skills. Another thing is that the tutors in The Netherlands are really approachable. You never hesitate to ask a question if you don’t understand something.”

Back to India
In the end, after six years in China and four years in The Netherlands, Ruhi Agarwala really wanted to move back home. “After having travelled for such a long time, it was good to move back to my family. Still, they are a three hours’ flight from Bengaluru, where I’m now, but it is good to be back home.” In the background of the Skype call, a Bengaluru song bird confirms that.

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