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Department of Medicine announces $1 million endowment to support diversity, inclusion efforts

Mar. 14, 2022, 8:22 AM

Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, left, and Walter Clair, MD, MPH, professor of Medicine and vice chair for Diversity and Inclusion for the Department of Medicine, recently announced a $1 million endowment dedicated to the department’s efforts in diversity and inclusion. (Photo by Susan Urmy)
Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, left, and Walter Clair, MD, MPH, professor of Medicine and vice chair for Diversity and Inclusion for the Department of Medicine, recently announced a $1 million endowment dedicated to the department’s efforts in diversity and inclusion. (Photo by Susan Urmy)

by Jill Clendening

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Medicine has announced a $1 million endowment dedicated to the department’s efforts in diversity and inclusion.

This announcement was made by Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, at the opening of the recent Ownby Lectureship. The lectureship was hosted by the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and presented by Michelle Albert, MD, MPH, Walter A. Haas-Lucie Stern Endowed Chair in Cardiology and professor in Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), and admissions dean for UCSF Medical School.

The $1 million endowment, established internally, will support the Department of Medicine’s priority of enhancing and fostering a culture that promotes the engagement, growth and retention of diverse faculty, scientists, staff and trainees.

This is expected to include funding educational events, sponsorships for medical students and trainees of diverse backgrounds, recruitment of diverse department members, and building sustained relationships between the department and the surrounding community that further diversity and inclusion goals.

Because the gift is endowed, the perpetual funding will secure the future of these efforts in the Department of Medicine.

“We are delighted to be able to create this endowment,” said Rathmell. “The intent of the endowment is to ensure the durability and sustainability of efforts that allow us to lead in the diversity and inclusion space permanently. We know that this work will not be done next week, next month, or next year, and although we strive to make major improvements for our diverse faculty and trainees year over year, there will always be more work to be done, more lessons to learn, more lives to touch. This fund establishes a permanence to the work that symbolizes our perpetual effort to achieve equity.”

The Department of Medicine has aligned its efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion with those of VUMC’s Racial Equity Task Force and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM). Its initiatives include the establishment of a Department of Medicine Diversity Liaison Committee and financial support for pipeline programs such as the Aspirnaut, the Vanderbilt-Meharry James Puckette Carter Scholars Program, and the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Clinical Research Internship Program.

In December 2020, cardiologist Walter Clair, MD, MPH, professor of Medicine, was appointed to the new role of vice chair for Diversity and Inclusion to oversee the department’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“This generous endowment is a concrete down payment on our aspiration to make meaningful diversity, inclusion and equity part of the DNA of VUMC’s Department of Medicine,” he said. “We are not the first department to express its commitment this way, and we sincerely hope we are not the last.”

Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, professor of Medicine and Senior Vice President for Health Equity and Inclusive Excellence at VUMC, applauded the endowment.

“With this significant investment, the Department of Medicine is helping lead the way toward making diversity and inclusion intentional, which is one of VUMC’s three strategic directions,” Wilkins said. “This endowment will help support and sustain the ongoing work necessary to make the department and Medical Center a place where everyone wants to work, learn and receive care.”

Following the announcement, Albert, who is also president of the Association of Black Cardiologists and president-elect of the American Heart Association, shared research and her insights during her lecture, Breaking the Shackles: Addressing the Taxonomy of Medical Training to Achieve Health Equity.

She presented studies that examined aspects of underrepresented in medicine (UIM) issues, such as barriers that begin in undergraduate education; fewer minority researchers being awarded National Institutes of Health research grants; and disparities in the promotion of minority faculty to leadership roles. UIM is defined as those racial and ethnic populations that are underrepresented in the medical profession relative their numbers in the general population.

Albert highlighted studies that show UIM issues begin early and are evident in medical school applications and admissions. Recent changes at some medical schools attempt to address this by either changing the weight of the standardized Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or by not using the MCAT as a selection criterion at all. Concerns that may perpetuate UIM also exist in the selection processes for fellowships and other specialized training, Albert suggested.

She pointed out that even if study after study shows UIM issues exist, if those in leadership roles don’t perceive this to be a problem, substantive changes won’t happen. She presented a study published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Heart Association that showed that out of more than 500 cardiology fellowship program directors surveyed, 31%were uncertain if diversity improves health care quality; 63% did not believe diversity needed to be improved in their programs; and only 6% ranked diversity as a top-three priority.

Albert concluded her presentation by noting the Department of Medicine’s new $1 million endowment is an example of the action that needs to happen throughout the nation’s health care system for true improvement and so medical providers better reflect and meet the needs of the populations they serve.

“We must be intentional about our workforce,” she said. “We need to not only recruit underrepresented minorities, but we need to retain them. In order to retain them successfully, we need to pay attention to the barriers within our system. And we must listen to our trainees and faculty members, and actually do intentional assessments. Hopefully, that will be further supported by this $1 million, and I know some of it is already occurring.”

The Ownby Lectureship, sponsored by the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, is held in honor of Fred Ownby, MD, an internist/cardiologist at Vanderbilt for more than two decades.

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