From “sick care” to “health care”: International physician earns public health doctorate at UAB

Sami Alqahtani, M.D., spent four years as a primary care physician in Saudi Arabia before pursuing a path in public health. On April 28, Alqahtani will graduate with his doctoral degree in health behavior from UAB.

Stream Sami AlqahtaniSami Alqahtani, M.D., spent four years as a primary care physician in Saudi Arabia before pursuing a path in public health. On April 28, Alqahtani will graduate with his doctoral degree in health behavior from UAB.Some children dream of being astronauts, others famous athletes. For Sami Alqahtani, he dreamed of a life dedicated to helping the masses.

In high school, he realized medicine and health care were ways he could fulfill his dream. He attended seven years of medical school in Saudi Arabia, his home country, where he became a primary care physician upon graduation. Eleven years and two continents later, Alqahtani graduated again, this time from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with his doctorate in health behavior from the UAB School of Public Health.

“During my four years as a primary care physician, I was not working in ‘health care’ but rather ‘sick care,’” Alqahtani said. “I spent my days treating diseases and complications but not addressing the root causes. I wanted to find a way to keep healthy people healthy, which led me to pursue public health.”

Coming to America

Alqahtani traveled to the United States to begin his master’s degree in public health and was introduced to a world of preventive medicine that goes beyond patient-centered care to caring of the whole community at large. He was intrigued by the field, from epidemiology to biostatistics, to environmental health, to health care policy and management. However, it was the field of health behavior that fascinated him.

“I realized the best way to prevent disease and chronic illness was to help people change their behaviors to create a healthy lifestyle,” Alqahtani said. “I wanted to dive deeper into the field and decided to pursue my doctorate.”

Inside Sami AlqahtaniSami Alqahtani, M.D., Ph.D.
Photography: Andrea Mabry
While exploring his options, Alqahtani stumbled across an article about placebo effects in obesity research written by Kevin Fontaine, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Health Behavior. Alqahtani was amazed by Fontaine’s research and decided to reach out to him and learn more about UAB’s health behavior doctoral program.

“I was impressed that he’d read our paper and found it interesting enough to track me down to have a chat,” Fontaine said. “I was immediately impressed by his compassion. It came through, even over email. He talked about his concern about the rates of obesity in his homeland and that he wanted to know if I would be willing to serve as his mentor. It was a no-brainer for me, of course.”

Coping with COVID

Alqahtani was accepted into UAB’s program in 2018. Less than halfway through his program, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he found himself stuck halfway across the globe away from his family. Alqahtani decided to use his clinical background and new public health knowledge to help fight the pandemic both in Birmingham and back home through the Saudi Arabia-based Waey Society for Community Health. 

“The Waey Society focuses on disease prevention mainly through increasing community awareness, and I was able to translate what I was learning at UAB to further the organization’s efforts in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the fight against COVID,” Alqahtani said. “I was also a volunteer for their psychological support initiative for students studying abroad that was launched during COVID-19.”

Learn more about doctoral programs in the UAB School of Public Health here.

Alqahtani focused much of his research exploring chronic health conditions, specifically the role of mental and physical quality of life, as well as unhealthy substance use on physical activity among U.S. adults with chronic conditions. He also participated in the Sparkman Center for Global Health global case competition, where he worked with students from other UAB schools to develop plans that would improve the health of elderly populations in Kenya.

“My clinical background provided a unique perspective when evaluating and applying behavior change theories,” Alqahtani said. “Conceptually, many behavior change theories seem like a great idea on the surface, but I understood the challenges and realities of people’s behaviors from my time in a clinical setting. There’s typically not a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

Inside Ryals Public Health Building 1UAB Ryals School of Public Health
Photography: Steve Wood
Home away from home

Unable to travel home during his time at UAB, Alqahtani says student resources such as the UAB International Ambassadors program and the Saudi Student Association helped him acclimate to life in Birmingham and alleviated homesickness. 

“I came to UAB as an international student and was worried I would stand out, but I was completely wrong,” Alqahtani said. “The diversity of UAB continues to amaze me. I have met, worked with and learned from people from all different cultures and backgrounds. These experiences and relationships helped get me to where I am today and provided me with invaluable knowledge I will use in the future.”

Fontaine reflects on his time as Alqahtani’s mentor, and watching him overcome various challenges, as a highlight of his career.

“His dissertation was outstanding, and I know the work he accomplished at UAB will greatly inform the rest of his career taking care of patients. Oh, and I will miss him dearly,” Fontaine said.

Following graduation, Alqahtani will continue his work with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health. Before he steps into his new role, Alqahtani will step across a stage in UAB’s Bartow Arena with family he has not seen in five years cheering him on as he officially becomes Sami Alqahtani, M.D., Ph.D., public health physician.