(April 2021) The Department of Surgery’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee was formed in fall 2019, but the events of 2020 gave its members a new sense of energy and purpose.
“I think we’re at a tipping point as a country, which is great,” says Kia Washington, MD, vice chair of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Department of Surgery. “I’m hoping that we will have a true reckoning and healing in our country, not just around racial justice inequities, but all social justice issues. I’m hoping we’ll start to dive into the deep, uncomfortable work, because that’s where we’ll really start to make progress.”
With the goal of becoming the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive department of surgery in the country by 2030, the committee is examining hiring practices, trainings, mentorship, and patient care.
“All we have to do is look at COVID infection rates and the fact that communities of color are impacted more severely than white communities,” says DEI committee member Brian Shimamoto, the department’s organizational and employee development manager. “Is that about race? About class? It could be about a lot of different things, but what we see is more Black and brown people dying of the disease. And you have to wonder, why is that happening? I think people are asking those questions. They’re paying attention.”
Shimamoto leads regular trainings around issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. He speaks often on microaggressions — those small, ingrained, often unintentional habits that diminish others or make them feel less valued or respected.
“Female surgeons are often referred to by their first name, whereas men are referred to as ‘Dr. Jones,’” he says. “It’s a common experience. I have seen it in higher education too, where the president of the university is referred to as ‘doctor’ and the dean of students is referred to as ‘Sue,’ and both have PhDs. When that happens specifically to women, we have to hit pause and say, ‘Why is it that we’re not giving women who have earned certain titles their due?’ That becomes what we call a microaggression.”
Increasing diversity and representation
Another goal of the committee is to increase the number of people from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine — women, people who identify as LGBTQ, people of color, people with disabilities, veterans, and people serving in the military.
General surgery resident Matthew Bartley, MD, says such representation matters. As a Black doctor, he says, he thinks about it every day.
“You walk around the hospital and the Anschutz campus, and there are very few who look like you,” he says. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to mentorship and career progression and things like that, it’s always nice to have someone who identifies similar to you and who may share some experiences to help guide you through.”
On the flip side, he says, he knows that as a Black physician, he’s a role model for others.
“Sometimes when I see Black janitors or Black techs or even Black patients, it’s like they’re surprised that I’m even a doctor,” he says. “A lot of times they pull me to the side and tell me how proud they are of me. Even strangers who don’t know me. It’s important.”
Washington says the department will need to look outside the usual recruitment channels to increase diversity. That includes asking other surgeons for candidate recommendations, and seeking out and engaging social media groups for doctors, residents, and fellows from the communities they want to represent.
“Obviously we’ve recruited wonderful people here; it’s just a different strategy in terms of widening our network to get people from diverse backgrounds,” she says. “We know there are great qualified people out there to become part of our community.”
That’s part one of the challenge. The second part is making sure that after people from diverse backgrounds are hired, they have a good network and the career and personal support so they feel welcome and want to stick around.
“We want to support all people, but especially people from underrepresented backgrounds,” Washington says. “We realize that they may face different challenges being in academia.”
Continuing the conversation
To create a long-lasting culture of equity in the surgery department, the DEI committee also has a focus on education. That includes Shimamoto’s trainings and his regular appearances at weekly educational sessions attended by doctors, residents, and fellows from across campus.
“We also will have a lecture series where we can do a deep dive on things like gender equity in surgery,” Washington says. “And a DEI annual lectureship where we invite a professor, someone from an underrepresented background in surgery, and talk about their expertise and challenges they may have faced in their career.”
The committee’s goals include increasing diversity in leadership, increasing mentorship opportunities for faculty members of color, and creating an inclusive environment for faculty and staff.
“This will involve doing things like looking at resources to make sure they’re equitable, conducting climate surveys to see if there’s a sense of belonging,” Washington says. “The first task will be collecting information about things like that. Once we get more information, we’ll be able to implement policy changes in our department.”
Reflecting a changing world
The end goal, committee members say, is to create a surgery department that is diverse not just for diversity’s sake, but for the sake of future doctors and patients seeking to give and receive care in an increasingly diverse world.
“When 13% of the U.S. population is African American but only 5% of MDs across the nation identify as African American, there’s a disparity,” Shimamoto says. “We want to not only foster Black students at the CU School of Medicine, but also encourage them to be surgeons so they would want to specialize in surgery and go through a residency or fellowship with us. Then ultimately, if they stay in the academic realm, to stay and be faculty. That’s a long road, and it helps on so many different levels. Even as our faculty of color or our female faculty are reflecting our students, they’re also helping our patients. Patients want to see people they can trust and that they connect with as well.”