Get to Know the Big-Hearted Dr. Bon Ku

When he’s not working in the E.R., the Philadelphia-based physician is on a mission to make healthcare accessible to all, thinking about design or plotting his next surf trip


Dr. Bon Ku is on a mission to improve medical care for all. When the emergency medicine physician is not in the E.R. or helping solve medical mysteries on Chasing the Cure, he serves as the Assistant Dean of Health & Design at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. 

There, Dr. Ku’s forward-thinking program takes on healthcare inequalities by teaching future physicians to apply their imaginations and creativity towards building healthier communities. His forthcoming book “Health Design Thinking,” co-written by renowned graphic designer and author Ellen Lupton, offers solutions for creating products and services for better health. 

We caught up with the forward-thinking doctor to ask him about his background, what it’s like solving medical mysteries in his own practice and what podcasts and hobbies he can’t get enough of. 

How did you choose to specialize in emergency medicine? 
My parents are immigrants from Korea and I grew up without health insurance. I just remember the shock of the price of health insurance being so high, and feeling guilty as a kid for going to the doctor. From an early age, I had an idea that this system is messed up — and we really need to provide good care for all people whether they are insured or not.
That was one of my inspirations for going into the emergency medicine field. In the emergency room we actually have a federal mandate to take care and stabilize all patients irrespective of their ability to pay. I also enjoy the challenge of a patient who comes into the emergency department and seeing a patient for the first time and trying to figure out what's going on with them. 

That’s similar to your wok on the show.
Yeah, 100%. The only difference is that often these patients are a lot more challenging because they've seen a lot of physicians already. But it's a similar process because it's a mystery and we're trying to figure it out. But one of the major differences is that with the show I have an amazing team that I get to work with, and more time to think about these cases. 

What are some of the instincts that you've developed in your work in emergency medicine that help on the show?
There's a lot of talk about new medical technology, how medicine is changing so much because of great technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning, but really, talking with the patient, trying to understand what that patient is going through and getting the patient's story in their own words is the best diagnostic test that I have in my doctor's toolkit. 

What made you want to be a part of Chasing the Cure?
I think the major reason is that medical data and medical information is siloed. As an academic physician, I publish research articles in medical journals. I speak at medical conferences, but patients and most of the public don't have access to that. And here's a way to democratize data, to democratize medical research and allow the crowd to come see how we think. You share this knowledge, and also allow experts in the crowd to weigh in on cases. You know, doctors are not the only medical experts. There's a huge body of knowledge that exists in patients who are the experts of their own disease, of caregivers who are literally providing daily care to loved ones and have insight that I don't have. Someone living with multiple sclerosis has such deep insight into how that disease impacts the body, what the symptoms are, in a way that I don't have and no other doctor has. And this is valuable. 

So much of what you've done in your design and health world is thinking out of the box. How, how has that served you on the show?

We get to work outside of the medical community a lot. So we partner with a broad range of disciplines: a range of media, we do a lot of work with architects and industrial designers… So often our work has involved translating between all these different disciplines and being able to storytell. I think that is an important missing piece in medicine where if we were able to communicate better what a patient is going through, what a community is facing in terms of their health challenges, then we're going to be able to galvanize more support. So on the show I use those skills I developed over the past years of being able to effectively communicate what is going on with a patient and being able to tell their story. 

Speaking of storytelling, I saw on Twitter that you like podcasts. What are some of your favorites? 
One of my all time favorite podcasts is by the chef David Chang, it’s called the “David Chang Show.” Like me, he's Korean American. So I think that's just cool because there are not that many Korean American dudes out there in a public facing way. And I love the way David Chang looks outside of the culinary arts to inspire his cooking. He's always looking at the intersection of cooking and other fields, and I can relate to his creative process. So when I think about how to use my creativity in medicine, I think about how he uses creativity for food. 

Do you like to cook? 
I love to cook. My favorite thing is sourcing local ingredients. I have chickens in my backyard. I have a little vegetable garden and like using good ingredients and being inspired by that. And cooking from what I have before me. 

One of my dreams is to do a podcast with doctors and chefs on it, and how chefs think about food and how doctors think about providing medical care. I think there's a lot of overlap. 

I read you like to surf, tell us more about that. 
I'm addicted to surfing. It's problematic. I grew up skateboarding, and during residency in New York City is actually when I picked up surfing.. Not too many people know that New York City's one of the few places in the world where it has a surf break that's accessible by subway. 

Thinking back to Chasing the Cure, how do you think social media can help people when it comes to their health? 
What's interesting is, as doctors, we're already using social media. Social media has been connecting doctors all over the world. I learned so much by going on Twitter and connecting with other doctors and then communicating about their research. Social media provides this new engaging platform for the dissemination of scientific knowledge. It's so incredible because before, medical journals and medical knowledge was locked up behind these paywalls, right? You couldn’t access a medical journal without paying this huge amount of money to be able to read a scientific article. But now, through social media, there are known experts out there and they're sharing medical data. Social media is democratizing medical research. 

Do you have any advice for people, or their loved ones, who are dealing with their own medical mystery? 
When patients and families are struggling with a chronic illness, it can be very isolating and, it's a hard thing to do, but if they feel comfortable and brave enough to share their story I encourage them to connect with patient communities who are suffering with the same things — because we can't do this alone.

Sophia Kercher is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the editorial director of Chasing the Cure. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Women’s Health and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.