Appreciating diversity is of utmost importance in the practice of medicine. In their day-to-day lives, medical doctors encounter a wide range of patients from all walks of life. By becoming more familiar with all the differences present in their communities, doctors take their care to the highest level, providing not only competent treatment but also supportive understanding of the issues impacting those communities.
Leaders at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine have long known this to be important to the success of the school’s graduates and the quality of care they deliver, which is why diversity has been championed as an integral part of the medical school since its founding.
Over the years, a focus has remained on supporting the needs of a diverse student population, as well as continuing to increase diversity in all its forms —
through students who matriculate into the medical school as well as through faculty and staff who work together to keep it operating.
Under the leadership of Margaret Dunn, M.D., M.B.A., FACS, dean, there has been continual improvement in advancing diversity among students, faculty, and staff.
Some of the success so far includes that women lead more than 45 percent of the medical school’s administrative offices. Women leaders chair 13 percent of academic departments.
Much progress likewise has been heralded by students, who have brought new perspectives as times have changed. They have launched new groups, fostered greater relationships, and cultivated the accepting community that all at the medical school are so proud to share.
A few of the transformational and diverse student groups at the medical school include Boonshoft PRIDE, Student National Medical Association, Latino Medical Student Association, Advocates for Rural Medicine, Association of Women Surgeons, Intercultural Connection, One Accord, Reach Out of Montgomery County, Refugee Student Alliance, and Muslim Student Association.
Over the years, other successes include opening a gender-neutral restroom in White Hall. Several similar restrooms have since opened in other buildings on the Wright State University campus. Medical school leaders also turned an old mail room into a dedicated praying space for Muslim students.
“That was started by a second-year student who came to me, and then we took it to Dr. Gary LeRoy and set up a place for the students to pray,” said Kevin Watt, M.D., ’95, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion and clinical assistant professor of surgery. “We call it the Meditation Room.”
Watt has a great deal of pride for the Boonshoft School of Medicine. It is the place where he learned the foundations of his career as an ophthalmologist, and many of the faculty who guided him as a student continue to work at the school today. He graduated medical school with 18 other minority students, out of a class of 83.
“The original mission of this medical school read, ‘increase the number of minority physicians in Ohio,’” Watt said. “It tells a lot of the story of how this medical school came to be.”
He began as assistant dean of diversity and inclusion in 2008. There were very few diversity officers nationally at the time, and so Watt’s position gave the opportunity to serve in a role with the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Group on Diversity and Inclusion (GDI). He served as the central region representative to the GDI for two years, representing medical faculty, staff, and students around the Midwest.
“During that time, we created a toolkit to help offices throughout the country implement diversity and inclusion on an institutional level,” Watt said.
The toolkit has been used in medical schools around the United States, and also will inform ongoing efforts at the Boonshoft School of Medicine to strengthen diversity among faculty and staff.
Watt serves at the medical school while also maintaining a clinical practice and works closely with Gary LeRoy, M.D., ’88, associate dean of student affairs and admissions and Lakia Young, M.P.A., ’12, director of admissions. Their efforts have contributed to the number of underrepresented minorities who matriculate into the school each year.
One of the team’s goals is to advance people of color who practice medicine and likewise those who work in academic medicine. They wish to help others understand that diversity should be supported and encouraged in its many forms.
Differences in backgrounds can potentially contribute to miscommunication with future patients. People are often more comfortable discussing their health issues with doctors who understand where they’re coming from and talk their talk. The potential disconnect is something the team strives to eliminate in their work.
Bridging the gap is an interesting conundrum, but there have been many successes over the years. Watt credits Lakia Young’s ability to articulate a vision and her strengths in communicating and guiding minority students. Watt also mentors a mix of students, and has seen many through graduation.
“Lakia’s passionate about her work. And she has the right spirit, demeanor, and compassion that helps us do what we do and helps us do it well,” Watt said.
A great part of the work is recruiting students to attend the Boonshoft School of Medicine. Watt has found a lot of success recruiting from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Another significant draw is the Horizons in Medicine program, which has offered local high school students from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds the opportunity to see the science and delivery of health care first hand, since 1979. Young served as the program’s director for five years before becoming director of admissions at the medical school.
Another prominent pipeline program is The Ladder, which provides mentoring for kids age 9-17 who are interested in careers in health care. For incoming medical students who come from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, the school also offers a prematriculation program.
The programs have helped countless minority students in Dayton consider careers in health care. They also have contributed to those who become students at the Boonshoft School of Medicine.
“Last year, we had as many African-American students here across four years as Ohio State had, and their class size is 290. We’ve done really well,” Watt said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to get where we are.”
Students at the medical school gain recognition every year for leadership positions in national groups like the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), the oldest and largest independent, student-run organization focused on the needs of African-American medical students in the United States. The Boonshoft School of Medicine has had national presidents of SNMA three out of the last five years.
“We have the president-elect this year, and last year we graduated the national vice president,” Watt said. “From a leadership standpoint, learning from these organizations has been good. Students have been elected by their peers.”
Medical students also have had great success advancing diversity through Boonshoft PRIDE, a student group that provides a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment for LGBTQA people by promoting awareness and establishing a network of allies. Student leaders from the group have led events to share the principles of acceptance as well as surveys to assess health needs of the LGBTQA community in the Dayton area.
Each year, medical students work at Reach Out of Montgomery County, a clinic for the underserved in downtown Dayton. This type of community service helps to prepare them for the kind of community involvement they will experience as physicians.
“A lot of the aim was to increase the pool of qualified applicants and we’ve done it successfully enough that the school gets national recognition for the number of diverse students that we have enrolled and are matriculating,” Watt said.
Watt and Young keep their doors open, and support underrepresented students through mentoring and guidance. They’re available to help the students with anything, from finding a community of peers to finding a local grocery store that sells their culture’s favorite spices.
“Very regularly, we seek out students to talk to them about how they’re adjusting to medical school. Whether it’s connecting students of Hispanic descent to the local Mexican grocery store or churches, or other places where they feel like they have a home or have cultural significance,” Young said. “We introduce them to things that are outside the small enclave that they’re in during the first few years of medical school and hope that we can continue to encourage them as the years go on.”
To support underrepresented faculty and staff, Tonya Mathis, M.Ed., diversity and inclusion program manager, has joined the team. She is making plans for the future at the Boonshoft School of Medicine. Chief among her concerns is recruiting more diverse applicants to work at the medical school.
“If we get them here, we want them to stay here. That’s kind of my passion area,” Mathis said. “And that means continuing to make them feel valued, welcomed, and supported.”
In addition to a well-rounded orientation process for new faculty, Mathis suggests having things ready for new faculty to hit the ground running. Managers should anticipate their questions, and give them guidance before issues arise. A lot of times, Mathis has found, new employees don’t know what questions to ask. Leaders can support them by being flexible and understanding.
Getting to that point is a process, one that began in 2017 with a visit from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). It revealed that there were a few areas where more focus was needed at the medical school.
Mathis was hired in May 2018 to lead the refinements. Her first order of business was to prepare for the LCME visit in October 2018. That meant creating a report to show the school’s progression toward its goals in diversity and inclusion.
“It required identifying additional initiatives that would take place beyond what we had already done,” Mathis said. “And since the school had identified two diversity categories, which were women and African Americans, those were the focus of the report.”
Mathis is encouraging a lot of efforts beyond that first step. They include an implicit bias training that she developed and presented to the executive committee. Petey Peterson, M.S., director of LGBTQA Affairs, also presented spectrum safe space training to staff at the medical school. The training covered the spectrum of groups that Peterson’s office helps to serve at Wright State University, and taught many medical school faculty members new perspectives and terminology.
She also reached out to Nicole Carter, Ph.D., director of the Women’s Center at Wright State University. She asked if Carter would be interested in working to establish a mentoring program with a female senior faculty member from the Boonshoft School of Medicine.
Leading the effort to select a faculty member for the mentoring role will be Margaret Dunn, M.D., M.B.A., FACS, dean, and Albert Painter, Psy.D., associate dean of faculty affairs and the designated institutional official for graduate medical education. Once that person is selected, she will meet regularly with Mathis and Carter to get the program off the ground.
In the same spirit, Mathis has noticed the efforts of the Organization for Black Faculty and Staff. At present, the group is an association of likeminded members of the Wright State University family that doesn’t have regular meetings. However, she sees potential for the group to begin meetings again.
“That will provide a level of support for those two populations,” Mathis said. “In addition to that, I’ll be working collaboratively with the six identity centers on campus as well as the Office of Equity and Inclusion.”
It is one of the diversity offices that was recently moved under Wright State University’s Chief Diversity Officer. The alignment allows for more collaboration and a more seamless management of efforts to advance diversity on campus. Mathis will cooperate with others in the group to focus expertise and avoid redundancy of initiatives.
She also will collaborate with the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC). Mathis serves as the HERC’s director for Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The consortium allows additional opportunities for teaming up with professionals who are in the same field. As Wright State University is the region’s host institution, its staff helps guide the rest of the region toward a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
All the efforts amount to a great deal of change, which will take time. The advances so far are proof that change is possible, especially when patiently guided over the long term by a small group of dedicated people. Mathis and others are hopeful the efforts will benefit faculty, staff, and students at the medical school.
“It’s change, and it’s not overnight,” Mathis said. “Hopefully we can have an impact on the institution as a whole. We’ve already made great progress toward inclusive excellence.”
— Daniel Kelly