Working to mitigate racial and gender inequity in hospital medicine may seem like a daunting task, but every physician can play a role in turning the tide toward equity, according to Jorge Ganem, MD, FAAP.
“Talking about bias, racism, sexism, gender inequity, and health disparities is difficult,” Dr. Ganem, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin and director of pediatric hospital medicine at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, said May 5 at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. “There certainly comes a heavy weight and responsibility that we all feel. But I believe that we should approach gender inequities and racial disparities through a quality and patient safety lens, and looking through that lens.”
Dr. Ganem – along with Vanessa Durand, DO, FAAP, of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, and Yemisi O. Jones, MD, FAAP, FHM, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital – devised the concept of “functional allyship” as one way to improve representation in hospital medicine. The approach consists of three categories: listeners, amplifiers, and champions. Listeners are “those who take the time to listen and give space to the voices who are oppressed and disadvantaged,” Dr. Ganem said. “Action may not always be possible, but the space gives those who are marginalized validation to the feelings that the oppression produces.”
He described amplifiers as those who use their position of privilege to spread the message by educating their colleagues and other peers. “This includes elevating those from marginalized communities to speak on their own behalf and giving them the spotlight, given their expertise,” he said.
Champions are those who actively work to dismantle the oppression within systems. Dr. Ganem cited organizations such as ADVANCE PHM, FEMinEM and HeForShe as examples of national and global efforts, “but this also includes those working in committees that are addressing diversity and inclusion in their workplace and coming up with policies and procedures to increase equity,” he said.
Finding opportunities to practice mentorship and sponsorship are also important. “Positive mentorship relationships are key in avoiding burnout and decreasing attrition,” he said. “The development of successful mentorship programs are a must in order to retain women physicians and ‘underrepresented in medicine’ physicians in your organization.” He described a “sponsor” as someone who is in a position of influence and power who actively supports the career of a “protégé” whom they have identified as having high potential. “The sponsor may advance a protégé’s career by nominating them for leadership opportunities and introducing them into career networks,” he said.
Dr. Durand discussed additional ways to improve disparities of gender, race, and ethnicity. “It can all start with measuring the data,” said Dr. Durand, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Drexel University, Philadelphia. “This means looking at gender and race and ethnicity data by unit or section at your institution, as well as leadership positions.” In 2017, authors led by Hilary Sanfey, MBBBCh, MHPE, FACS, published an article addressing strategies to identify and close the gender salary gap in surgery (J Am Coll Surg. 2017;225:333-8). Their recommendations included changing policies, transparency, oversight of metrics, promoting women to senior leadership positions, and evaluating the organizational culture. “It goes back to culture, because it leads to accountability,” Dr. Durand said. “Behavior change comes with accountability.”
Part of holding people accountable within a culture change includes addressing microaggressions, or indirect expressions of prejudice. In 2016, authors led by Floyd Cheung, PhD., established a framework using the acronym A.C.T.I.O.N., which identifies a microaggression without being aggressive or evoking defensiveness towards the person communicating the microaggression. A.C.T.I.O.N. stands for Ask clarifying questions; Come from curiosity, not judgment; Tell what you observed in a factual manner; Impact exploration – discuss what the impact was; Own your own thoughts and feelings around the situation; and discuss Next steps.
“Granted, this might take a little time, but when we state microaggressions, most of us don’t realize that those statements could be hurtful or uncomfortable for the person receiving them,” Dr. Durand said.
Another strategy to address disparities involves partially blinding the interview process for trainees. “You can do this by not giving any ‘cognitive information’ to your interviewers – such as United States Medical Licensing Examination Step scores – that may anchor their position prior to the interview taking place,” she explained. “You can also standardize one or two questions that all interviewees have to answer, to have a more objective way to compare answers horizontally rather than vertically.”
This complements the notion of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ “holistic review,” a principle that it describes as allowing admissions committees “to consider the ‘whole’ applicant, rather than disproportionately focusing on any one factor.”
“The overall concept is to evaluate what are criteria of the position you are hiring for,” Dr. Durand said. “Different criteria will have different levels of importance. You would take into consideration the values of the group or the institution and make sure those criteria are most important for selection, at the forefront.”
Dr. Ganem and Dr. Durand reported having no financial disclosures.