Italo M. Brown, MD, MPH, presented the 8th Annual GW SMHS Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week Lecture Series, “Advancing the Dream: From Dream to Reality — The Journey Continues,” hosted by the SMHS Office of Diversity and Inclusion, on Jan. 16.
Brown, and assistant professor in emergency medicine, and the lead of the Health Equity and Social Justice Curriculum Thread at Stanford University School of Medicine, and the chief impact officer of Stanford’s T.R.A.P. (Trust, Research, Access, and Prevention) Medicine program, discussed the role physicians can play in eliminating health disparities and achieving health equity through patient centered care.
Setting the tone for the day’s address, Grace Henry, EdD ’12, assistant dean and director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “ ‘If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.’
“The truth of this quote is what the Advancing the Dream Lecture Series is about as an academic medical enterprise,” she said. “Today, we have an amazing speaker who will challenge our thinking and encourage us to keep moving forward.”
Most Americans, Brown said as he opened his remarks, have either heard or experienced in some form, Dr. King’s Aug. 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The address, delivered during the March on Washington, called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States.
That message, he added, “begs the question, how has American society, some 60 years removed from that iconic moment, built upon the foundation laid by Dr. King? How have we gone further? And, what are our personal and collective responsibilities [as physicians] to advance that dream?”
Touching on the “uncomfortable steps between dreaming and reality, between ideating and actually executing on what that dream could look like,” Brown explained that Dr. King was no stranger to the interaction between social and structural factors affecting health and wellness. Non-medical factors, such as voting rights, substandard housing, wealth distribution, access to education, and unemployment are all factors that double as determinants of health. Addressing those factors, however, requires concerted attention to social structural drivers of health.
“We are in a unique point in time right now where there are not only a number of different social things that are occurring, but we as physicians are in a unique place. We're able to lay impact.
Brown stressed that doctors and health care professionals have tremendous social capital to affect institutional change. He cautioned, however, to beware of the illusion of diversity, equity, equity, inclusion. Hiring DEI employees, changing mission statements, and crafting a health equity platform is not enough.
“I see that as merely a skin,” he said. “We have to continue to look deeper and we have to continue to do the work.
“We have concordant data,” Brown continued, “to make the case for diversity, equity, inclusion. We data that shows health outcomes can truly change for the better when you start having increased diversity in those spaces.”
By developing a lens of equity, and a compass for social justice, Brown argued, institutions have the ability to build the health care leaders with the skills necessary to bring about sustainable change.
“Institutions are looking for leaders who have knowledge of [health equity] to truly pivot health care ecosystem, to use cost savings models to improve health outcomes. … It’s the reason why we can now bill for social structural drivers of health. This is the direction that health care is headed.”