Faculty, staff, and residents gathered Feb. 24 for the first Celebration of Diversity Day Symposium, a new CUMC event sponsored by the Department of Pediatrics and the Pediatric Residency Diversity Council.
“Diversity is not about numbers,” said featured speaker Aletha Maybank, MD, MPH ’06, deputy commissioner of NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “It’s about how people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds interact with each other and how they understand each other’s humanity and affirm it.”
Dr. Maybank said that health care providers need to help patients cope with the effects of institutional racism. She explained institutional racism involves the policies, practices, and procedures of government, businesses, and other powerful entities that have an overly negative impact on people of color and their access to good amenities, services, and opportunities.
The U.S. government’s policy of redlining, for example, discouraged banks from lending to people in African-American neighborhoods. Though decades have passed since redlining was officially repealed, the aftermath continues to shape NYC neighborhoods. Lack of investment contributed to the deterioration of these neighborhoods, which in turn has contributed to worse social conditions and health outcomes for their residents.
“As pediatricians, it’s important to get to know your patients’ stories,” said Dr. Maybank. “What are the life experiences of the child’s parents? What are the day-to-day experiences of your patients?”
Other speakers encouraged physicians to get involved in community engagement to help reduce health disparities. “If we want to impact the health of individuals and children, we have to address socioeconomic factors,” said Dodi Meyer, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the community pediatrics program, which partners with public schools near CUMC to address obesity, mental health, and teen pregnancy. “I urge residents and students to bring what they learn from clinical practice to develop sustainable programs for communities in need.”
Increasing diversity among physicians is also vital but is a continuing challenge. “Studies have shown that physicians from underrepresented minority populations are more likely to go into underrepresented minority communities to provide health care,” said Hilda Hutcherson, MD, professor of obstetrics & gynecology and senior associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs. Yet, the number of African-American students at U.S. medical schools hasn’t grown since the 1970s, and the number of African-American men in U.S. medical schools has actually declined.
“Diversity doesn’t just change,” added Dr. Maybank. “Systems don’t just change. We have to be explicit about institutional racism. As doctors, we have to use our positions of power to change things.”
Interested in using your voice to make change in health care? The new Columbia Pediatrics Advocacy Program is open to the CUMC community and will soon organize a trip to Albany to discuss health care issues with politicians. To join, email pediatric resident Francesca Kingery, MD, at email@example.com.
In addition, join the CUMC diversity deans for a special presentation on March 20: “Implicit Bias in the Academy.”