Medical students from around New England gathered at the Yale School of Medicine Saturday to discuss how to combat social injustice everywhere from the operating room to the research laboratory.
The conference, which was hosted by the regional chapter of the Student National Medical Association, centered around the theme “From ‘Do No Harm’ to Do What’s Right.” It drew students from local universities, such as the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University, as well as from universities farther away, such as Dartmouth and Brown. Attendees focused on social justice issues in medicine, ranging from how racism contributes to health care disparities to the role of implicit bias in impairing medical judgment.
The attendees, consisting mostly of medical students and pre-health undergraduates, rotated through various workshops throughout the day. Workshops focused not only on bringing attention to issues of social justice, but also on providing tools to help students become more effective at creating awareness of these issues after the conference.
“What does being a physician mean, and what are the tools we are being given to combat patient suffering?” presenter Jennifer Tsai, a student at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown, asked attendees during a workshop. “Medical school does not ask the questions or provide the answers that I think really solve these issues.”
Tsai, whose presentation centered on race in medical education, research and practice, called attention to the importance of color consciousness in medicine. She explained that health care providers should not necessarily prescribe treatment options based on a patient’s race, as race can be more of a social construct than a genetic reality.
After her lecture, she spoke with students about how to bring these lessons to their own studies back at school. Students offered suggestions for dealing with racism and implicit bias, ranging from improving workshop curriculum in medical schools to involving advocates both inside and outside the medical field.
“It was very nice to see medical students from a diverse background, especially coming from a school where there are not that many minorities in our medical classes,” said Karen Massada, a third-year medical student at the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University. “So it was just nice to have an environment of people who have similar experiences.”
The Yale School of Medicine struggles with diversity in its ranks as well; there are only seven black students, 17 Hispanic or Latino students and two Native American students in this year’s incoming class of over 100.
Other presentations focused on various other issues, such as LGBTQ concerns in medical education, the decline in the number of black male enrollees in medical school and the current health care situation for undocumented immigrants.
Some presenters provided workshops with more direct applications for students. Yonas Takele ’17, the only undergraduate presenter at the conference — who became involved in the SNMA after he helped organize the Yale SNMA chapter’s community health fair in New Haven last year — presented case studies to help attendees work through some of the challenges associated with creating community health fairs.
Takele said he had always envisioned social justice as separate from medicine and did not realize how the two intersected until he became involved with the SNMA.
“It wasn’t a facet of social justice that I had previously really thought about,” he said. “We don’t really talk about the doctors who fought systemic inequity. [But] having spent time here and having met people who are interested in this and do know a little more about this, I found that there’s definitely avenues to pursue [social justice in medicine].”
The conference concluded with remarks by Cheri Wilson, former director of diversity and inclusion at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. Wilson emphasized the importance of awareness and openness in discussing race-, gender- and age-based stereotypes in medicine, and she encouraged students to continue the conversation about social justice in medicine when they returned to their schools. Health care disparities for certain minorities and marginalized communities are not improving, she said.
“We’re at a threshold, we’re stagnant, we’ve got to do something better,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Cheri Wilson as the director of diversity and inclusion at Robert Wood Johnson University in New Jersey. In fact, she is the former director.