David A. Brenner: How UC San Diego Health Sciences is addressing racism in our classrooms, labs and clinics

Medicine and science are noble endeavors intended for the common good, but both have a history of racist acts, beliefs and behaviors. That past cannot — must not — be the future.

We must be anti-racist, which means we must use every available opportunity to proactively remove the barriers that keep certain racial and ethnic groups from going to medical and graduate school, securing faculty positions and succeeding in their careers. Faculty are now undergoing racial sensitivity/anti-bias training, which the White House has recently moved to ban.

UC San Diego Health Sciences encompasses our health system, School of Medicine, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science. We track our performance in student and faculty diversity, equity and inclusion — and know where we are making progress and where we need to improve.

Over the past several years, we’ve been working to diversify our student community, in part through holistic admissions and diversifying our admissions committee. For example, at UC San Diego School of Medicine we are proud that 26 percent of this year’s admitted students and 21 percent of the 133 students enrolled in the Class of 2024 represent racial/ethnic groups underrepresented in medicine, including our largest number of Native American and Pacific Islander students.

Since 1997, medical students and student pharmacists have provided free care to underserved communities in San Diego through our Student-Run Free Clinic. In our student-run Border Health Project, we hold health fairs for migrant farmworkers. Our Program in Medical Education — Health Equity is a special track in which medical students receive training and opportunities to become health equity leaders.

More recently, our students helped launch community-based electives that provide training in tribal health care, blood pressure testing in barber shops and health screenings at Pacific Islander festivals. A new mentoring program pairs underrepresented medical students with residents, who, only a few years ahead in training, are well-positioned to help navigate entry into clinical care.

But you can’t be what you can’t see. No matter how many underrepresented students we recruit, they will not feel they belong and have a future in science and medicine if our faculty don’t reflect the same diversity.

Like most universities, we long followed a model in which individual academic departments advertised open faculty positions, interviewed candidates and made decisions.

That frequently led to hirings that only underscored the power of networking — the “old boys club.”

Last year we disrupted the status quo. Our Office of Faculty Affairs managed the recruitment process: A centralized, diverse search committee sought underrepresented candidates, ranked and helped place them in appropriate departments. This year we welcome five outstanding new faculty members we likely would not have discovered the old way — all of whom are Latinx or Latinx/Native American.

We then provide faculty with the training they need to be successful, such as writing grants and managing budgets — leveling the playing field for those who are first in their families to navigate academic careers. We also provide training in cultural sensitivity/anti-bias, effective mentorship and respectful communication because we can’t overcome our own shortcomings if we can’t see them.

We believe diverse, inclusive faculty and student bodies ultimately produce more equitable patient care. Health disparities — the fact that Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people, for example — result from racism, not racial differences. A focus of our new Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health is addressing the effects of lack of access to equitable housing, employment, education and other advantages on a community’s health, and how to improve these systems.

There is clearly more work to do, which this year includes re-examining our curricula to further improve how we present race and disparities; implementing new health equity and social justice course content; developing a Racism in Medicine course; recruiting new faculty with interests in health equity; and creating new leadership positions dedicated to anti-racism.

We recognize the burden to improve often unfairly falls on the shoulders of faculty and students of color.

We cannot achieve our goals without engaging all of our students, faculty and staff to serve on hiring committees, leverage their networks to reach underrepresented candidates, collaborate with colleagues throughout our campus and involve community partners.

Racism has no place in society. While we are proud of the activism of our students and faculty, there is much work to be done to eliminate racism in our classrooms, research labs and patient care clinics for the benefit of us all.

Brenner is the Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences at UC San Diego. He lives in La Jolla.

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