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University of Utah Health Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion keeps driving big changes

During a recent meeting with faculty and staff, Dr. José E. Rodríguez received an interesting question—one he rarely encounters on the Utah campus.

“What exactly does UHEDI do?” Dr. Rodríguez had been delivering a presentation on a separate topic, so he hadn’t been expecting the question and had to go back and reframe his remarks.

As associate vice president for Health Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion, Rodríguez oversees a great deal of work across the health sciences campus in addition to his regular family practice duties where he sees patients. Most individuals in medicine already acknowledge the serious disparities in the field—just as most understand the need to address those issues to reduce the serious problems they create for patient health.

“We’ve talked a lot about health equity outcomes over the past few years. It’s not only a national concern, but also one of the university’s EDI strategic goals,” Rodríguez says. But he notes that this information may not always make it out to the general public in a way everyone understands.

Across medicine, there has been a growing awareness of how few physicians, clinicians, and researchers are coming from communities of color. “It’s a problem that results from systemic failures in education and the culture of medicine, and it has real repercussions for community health,” Dr. Rodríguez says. According to the latest data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5.7% of physicians in the US today are Black or African American. The same report found that Hispanic physicians are nearly as rare—and both groups are out of line with their proportion in the national population (which, for Blacks and Hispanics are 12% and 19% respectively).

This disparity can contribute to a variety of problems, including less effective treatment therapies for patients of color, medical distrust, and lower rates of preventative and neonatal care.  Dr. Rodríguez says that in a variety of areas, these disparities result in worse health outcomes for patients who identify as Black or African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander.

“There are several studies that show that racial and gender dissimilarity (or discordance) between patient and physician can have a negative effect on communication, patient satisfaction, and treatment consistency,” Rodríguez says. But solving these deficiencies has been incredibly difficult. “Because these problems are so complex,” he points out “you can’t approach them from a single angle. You need to attack them using multiple approaches and strategies.”

University of Utah Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (UHEDI) has targeted four key areas in order to address these problems in Utah.

  • Learner Programs – including K-12 programs (like the Saturday Academies) and undergraduate resources and instruction to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in healthcare;
  • Investigation/Research – including dedicated studies to develop the most effective treatments, drug therapies, and preventative strategies for improving patient health;
  • Policy – focusing on the institutional practices and procedures for recruiting, promoting, and retaining diverse students and workforce;
  • and Transparency – including communication strategies for ensuring the public is informed about the challenges facing health sciences and the work being done to address disparities.

Over the next few weeks, Dr. Rodríguez says UHEDI will be highlighting the work it is doing to strengthen student recruitment and performance, improve patient outcomes, increase the retention of diverse faculty and staff, and enhance the sense of belonging they experience. To learn more about the transformative work UHEDI is doing, readers are invited to visit its website, sign up for the MEDiversity Newsletter, and look through previous issues in their archive.