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Exercising new muscles

How one Northeastern University alumna bridges Chinese and American medical cultures to improve patient recovery.

Li Li earned her doctorate in physical therapy from Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences in 2011. An immigrant from China’s Sichuan Province, she runs a private practice catering to Boston’s Asian community and, as a healthcare consultant, has helped set up partnerships between U.S. and Chinese hospitals — shaping a growing physical therapy profession in that country.   

What is your specialty as a physical therapist?
It’s changed over time. Right now I’m doing a lot in women’s health and problems that come with age, like osteoporosis and menopause. “Women’s health” is a bit misleading because it’s not just for women during and after pregnancy. The therapies can benefit men, too — with pelvic floor issues that can come with prostate cancer, or anyone with incontinence challenges. 

What led you to the field?
I’m 50 years old. When I came to Boston in 1996, I was 26 already. I had an associate degree from China in English literature, and I went to Babson College for business school. After that, I worked for biotech companies in supply chain management. But I always wanted to be a doctor, on the front lines helping people in need. So I took classes at night to catch up on prerequisites, and applied to Northeastern back in 2006. The co-op really differentiated Northeastern’s program from the others. I’m a practical person, and I value hands-on [learning]. The idea that you could get paid to learn was a huge motivational factor as well. I still remember jumping up and down when I got the acceptance letter. I scared my little dogs.

Where did you go on co-op? 
Newton-Wellesley Hospital. There is a big Chinese population in the area, and I could add value right away because I speak the language. I was the inpatient co-op so I got to experience all specialties — ortho, cardio, geriatric, pulmonary. I lived five minutes away, so I could also stay after hours to shadow the outpatient therapists and volunteer for events when they needed someone. I started late, so I never wanted to waste a minute not learning.  

“I started late, so I never wanted to waste a minute not learning.”

How did you come to work with hospitals in China?
During school, I did volunteer trips to Beijing with Professor Lorna Hayward doing burn care for children with an organization called HandReach. We’d get a team of multidisciplinary specialists together for the trip. I [continued to do] that until 2017 and formed connections with Chinese doctors and specialists. That led to paid management positions leading rehab projects, like at Jiahui International Hospital in Shanghai. Physical therapy didn’t exist in China when I was growing up, and it’s a booming industry now. 

What are the cultural differences between Chinese and American medicine?
Doctors in China are authority figures, and the patients follow. Here it’s more collaborative. I used to get mad when my [U.S.] doctor would ask me, “What would you like?” You’re the doctor, you should tell me! But I understand the concept now. There’s also less specialization than in the United States, where sometimes you have to see five doctors in order to get one problem solved. There, you see one good doctor, you solve five problems. But there’s no primary care model or patient advocacy, and figuring out which doctors to see can waste time and money for patients.

Also, in China, rehab is very passive. For pain, patients expect you to give a massage, put a patch on it, and they think that’s rehab. Here, after I work on you I’ll ask you to really move and exercise, to enhance that work. I try to bring that to my patients in China, but it’s tricky. I try to be the bridge between those two cultures. We learn from them, and they learn from us.

How did the pandemic affect the work you do in China? 
[The closure of international borders] has been frustrating. Before COVID, I was leading a 700-bed rehab program in a brand-new hospital in Shenzhen, but I haven’t been able to fly. I’ve been doing small projects to support that and some patient care remotely, but I want to get back to working hands-on. 

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