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Dr. Ila Dayananda’s Rise to Leadership in Reproductive Health Care

Dr. Ila Dayananda
7 min read

Dr. Ila Dayananda MD/MPH is the new Medical Director and Chief Clinical Operations Officer of Oula, a modern maternity center located in Brooklyn NY. Dr. Dayananda recently transitioned from being Chief Medical Director of the Greater New York Planned Parenthood Center to the Medical Director of Oula. When asked how she achieved these momentous milestones in her career and what the journey has been like thus far, the story she shared was an inspiring one. She is a South-East Asian American whose family immigrated from Bangalore, India, over 50 years ago. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her two children and two cats. Dr. Dayananda loves food and dabbles in cooking. She spends her free time playing games with her kids, reading novels, and watching shows and movies in the genres of comedy and romance. 

We used to go to India for the summers when we could afford to do so and many of my earliest memories are with my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in India.  In fact, I got my first bicycle in India! How I live life and who I am are grounded in my experiences straddling continents, cultures and societal norms across the USA and India.  

Dr. Dayananda’s parents never pressured her to be someone she wasn’t. During the interview, she mentioned how her parents taught her the true meaning of gratitude and mindfulness, which to her was to, “observe and marvel at the present when things are hard, to know that there is no one right way and to always listen to your inner self.”  This and other teachings have grounded Dr. Dayananda not only in her values and morals as a healthcare professional but as a parent of her two children, Amiya (10) and Ayan (7) who challenge her to do better and remind her to be her authentic self every day. 

When Dr. Dayananda was younger, her early travels to India often involved witnessing gender inequities and inaccessibility to care in daily life. She was exposed to different healthcare systems and observed the impact societal constructs like race and gender can have on one’s ability to access basic medical care and reproductive health. 

 

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These experiences drove Dr. Dayananda to pursue women’s issues and global health adjacent to her focus in Biology at Purdue University. She decided to pursue a joint MD/MPH program at Northwestern University and studied medicine with a focus on reproductive health. This allowed her to spend more time in India to understand the impact community norms had on individuals identifying as women who lived in rural areas around Karnataka. Her MPH degree brought her to a deeper understanding of how we are, where we are, and what needs to change on a community, national and global level complemented by her MD which gave her the tools to provide evidence-based care on a patient-provider level. 

I wanted to serve women and advocate for reproductive health and rights in whatever way I could.  That was the start of my journey. As I grew and recognized the intersectionalities of the many identities navigating similar spaces I recognized that serving people who are pregnant and centering the broader reproductive framework resonated with my work.  I also love delivering babies, providing abortion care and performing surgery — what other field allows for this diversity in medicine and the continuity of care across reproductive health? 

Dr. Dayananda was drawn to OB/GYN from the start of medical school with many of her early experiences shaping her passion to be a part of the reproductive justice movement. After residency training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA, Dr. Dayananda was selected to pursue a Family Planning Fellowship at the Harvard School Medicine/Brigham and Women’s Hospital Site. 

 I feel that we must do better — be more open and transparent about healthy sexual relationships, and provide high quality evidence based care for people who are pregnant — no matter the outcome of that pregnancy. Reproductive health is a fundamental human right and part of medical care and yet it is so politicized and weaponized such that people who have uteri and/or identify as women are most impacted.

[Read Related: Before a Mother, she is a Person: A Glimpse Into Postpartum Depression]

Early on, Dr. Dayananda knew how important it would be to have the skills to safely take care of people who required having an abortion. Few OB/GYN training programs provide abortion training in a manner that allows trainees to become proficient in abortion services. Having had a long-standing career in medicine and healthcare while also being an advocate for abortion rights and women’s rights, Dr. Dayananda’s cultural background and identity have helped her embrace her journey in several ways. 

In my personal experience I actually found talking about abortion was less taboo among upper and middle class families in India than I imagined however I found that there was a lot of emphasis on having a baby “boy” and stories of abortion to end pregnancies where the fetus was assigned as a girl. This highlighted for me the immense pressure and value placed on the reproductive capabilities of the birthing person, mother, woman and the sexism that is intricately tied to the reproductive parts you have at birth. I do this work to do whatever small bit in the hope that one day the pregnant person should have full physical, mental and emotional autonomy on their reproductive capacities, health and decisions.  

Continuing on how Dr. Dayananda’s cultural background and identity have played a role in her professional journey, she had several points of thought to share. All of her identities have played roles across her journey. From growing up in Indiana as one of the only individuals of color and being placed in the “model minority” bucket, to unpacking her own role within the privilege and harm of the dominant white culture she had been surrounded by for so long, Dr. Dayananda assimilated to succeed. Understanding how white privilege infiltrated into her world, tenants of healthcare and how it intersected with reproductive justice were just some of the ways in which her multifaceted identity helped her. 

I have a long way to go on this journey however I have found that my personal experiences have given me the foundation to understand and better empathize with other people who are marginalized under the constructs of society.

Mother and caregiver, doctor and caregiver and abortion provider, are just some identities that move with her in all aspects of her life. They influence how she leads a team, how they create a space to achieve “work-life balance,” and where she personally puts her resources to work on self-care. 

These are just some of the identities that move with me through all aspects of my life. They influence how I lead a team, how we create space to achieve “work life balance” which is a radical concept in itself, and where I personally put my resources to work on self-care. 

When asked to describe the transition from Chief Medical Officer of Greater New York Planned Parenthood Center to Medical Director and Chief Clinical Operations Officer of Oula, Dr. Dayananda spoke about how the mission and vision of Oula resonated with her from the moment she heard about the formation of the organization. 

Oula strives to create a higher standard of care for people who are pregnant and is raising the bar in perinatal care. Oula is based on the belief that that patient should be at the center of their medical care, driving decision making and collaborating with their clinical team. The midwifery model of care is at the heart of the collaborative care approach with Ob/Gyns and other collaborative providers providing consultation and expertise as needed. We provide evidence-based  care where education and communication are emphasized and personalized along the pregnancy journey.  

 

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Oula’s model of care aims to break down some of the barriers to building trust between providers and patients. Oula utilizes a patient portal for providing patient information during pregnancy and allows for messaging between patient and provider. By creating more space to address the needs of patients, they can be empowered to make informed care decisions with the education and information they will receive. Oula also takes most major insurances including Medicare. Dr. Dayananda also highlighted the importance of humility in the context of birth equity spaces. 

As we enter the birth equity space with humility we recognize that in order to do better by black and brown birthing people we must strive harder to listen and build trust. As we iterate on the model of care we actively seek feedback from our patients and acknowledge that there is work to be done to start to dismantle the current approach to pregnancy care.  

During the interview, Dr. Dayananda described coming out as an abortion provider as being a journey. When asked about difficulties she may have faced in incorporating topics and services related to abortion, contraceptives, safe sex practices, etc., into her medical practice as a woman of South Asian descent, she explained her answer as a no with a caveat. Reproductive health topics are often regarded as taboo in South Asian culture. It was not an option for Dr. Dayananda to surrender to discomfort as it would result in inadequate medical care without evidence or comprehensive education on the topic. She mentioned during the interview that she has received feedback from those within the South Asian community about being a provider who has a background and supports pro-choice. 

At this point in my life and career — let them eat cake. I do this work so that my daughter and other uteri bodied and possible birthing people can maybe have something a little different on day. We spend too much time commenting on everyone else and maybe those same people could spend that energy taking a deep look as to why they care about the reproductive health and lives of other people so much? Smash the patriarchy I say. 

[Read Related: How Reproductive Healthcare Shapes Female Leadership in the Workplace]

In regard to the South Asian community in this context, Dr. Dayananda felt there is still a long way to go to center real conversations unapologetically. From the medical perspective, you wouldn’t think to withhold information on how to be heart-healthy, yet we withhold information or worse spread gross misinformation on how to take care of yourself in the context of reproductive and sexual health. This is all very damaging on top of the fact that we further hold healthcare services such as access to safe perinatal care, contraception and abortion hostage in a patriarchal manner that is even harder to access if you identify as brown, black or LGBTQQIA, or all of the above. 

We have a long way to go to center real conversations about healthy sexual relationships, the spectrum of sexuality, the spectrum of gender and how it is just okay to love whoever you love emotionally and romantically and unapologetically. The only way through to the other side is to keep raising awareness, to create spaces where access to both evidence based information and care is available and to keep doing the advocacy work needed to change the entire system. Brown Girl Magazine is part of this very work!

Finally, when asked what advice she would offer young women of color who are pursuing careers in healthcare and medicine and come from underrepresented and underserved communities, Dr. Dayananda had this to say: 

Be your authentic self. Share your experiences. Lift each other up — there is more than enough room for all of us and in fact, it is imperative we are at the table.