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UMMS community members share ideas for eliminating health disparities

Health equity discussion second in campus conversation series

By Colleen Locke

UMass Medical School Communications

October 23, 2020
Session participants were divided into breakout sessions and were challenged to discuss ideas for eliminating health disparities at the individual, institutional and community levels 

The second in a series of campus conversations on diversity and inclusion was framed by the book that’s the UMass Medical School’s campus read, Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist.

Jeroan Allison, MD, MS, chair and professor of population & quantitative health sciences, was one of the facilitators of A Campus Conversation on Health Equity and Eliminating Health Disparities, held over Zoom on Thursday, Oct. 22. Dr. Allison began his comments by pointing out that although Kendi doesn’t have a chapter on health equity, he writes about his battle with colon cancer.

Sharina Person, PhD, vice chair and professor of population & quantitative health sciences, said the takeaway of the book is that when combating health disparities or any kind of negativism, “it is not just enough to be a passive participant. We must be active in our role.”

“The author makes a distinction between racist and antiracist by pointing out the opposite of racist isn’t not racist, but instead antiracist. So he is implying an action,” Dr. Person continued. “And it’s really comparable to the idea that if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Person talked about how as a biostatistician, she can see problems when she comes at traditional disparities research with an anti-racist lens.

“We typically will compare racial groups and when we compare,” she said. “We usually point out one as a reference. There is an implication from a statistical point of view of what the reference is. The reference is the most benign group. It is the group that we want to see how other groups deviate from it and the group we traditionally use as the reference in dealing with racial disparities is people who are white.”

Person said she has started to work on delving into a population rather than focusing on how it deviates from others.

“Research journals themselves are pushing back on traditional health disparities work that only purports a biologic component or behavioral component to help disparities. It’s almost a victim shaming, if you will, and it’s challenging authors to examine and acknowledge the impact that slavery and the resulting systems have played in health disparities,” Person said.

Person then divided the more than 270 participants into breakout sessions, challenging each group to discuss ideas for eliminating health disparities at the individual, institutional and community levels. After about 20 minutes, group leaders summarized the various discussions for the whole group.

The need for self-reflection, education and awareness of the lived-in experience came up repeatedly during the group sharing, as did the needs for a diverse pipeline and workforce so that the institutions look like the communities they represent. Another repeated theme was the need to build trust in the health care system, which would facilitate greater participation in clinical trials. Being active in the community around housing equity, school equity and access to food, parks and transportation was also discussed.

Allison said he viewed the discussion as a starting point.

“We want this forum that has occurred today to be seen as a challenge: that we will take what we’ve learned—what we’ve discussed—and bring it forward in our daily life and continue the conversation and continue to advocate for change. This is just the beginning,” Allison said.

Upcoming community conversations include:

Oct. 28: A Campus Conversation on Enhancing Student Diversity at UMMS and Improving Diversity within STEM-related Careers, led by Peter Cruz-Gordillo, UMMS student trustee.

Oct. 29: A Campus Conversation on LGBTQ Equity, led by Kenneth Peterson, PhD, FNP-BC, assistant professor of nursing; co-chair, UMMS Committee on Equal Opportunity and Diversity.

Nov. 2: A Campus Conversation on Faculty Diversity, led by Milagros Rosal, PhD, vice provost for health equity and professor of population & quantitative health sciences.

Nov. 5: A Campus Conversation on How to Be an Antiracist, with guest facilitator Michael Hyter, chief diversity officer, Korn Ferry.

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