A man arrived by ambulance at a Chicago emergency room, labeled as a suspected drug overdose case. He’d actually suffered a stroke resulting from sickle cell disease, but the hospital staff believed otherwise simply because he was Black.
“I wish this was not true today in America, but unfortunately it still exists,” said Mia Saunders, a second-year student in Des Moines University’s College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery (CPMS). “How can we reduce the occurrence of these types of experiences that unfortunately happen to so many people of color? I believe this change starts at home; at school, like Des Moines University; and at this dinner…Change begins with you and me.”
Mia was speaking to attendees at DMU’s Glanton Fund Event on Oct. 26 at the Meadows Events Center in Altoona, IA. In its 19th year, the annual event raises support for minority students, who are under-represented in the health professions, and for programs that foster the cultural competency of all DMU students. These efforts seek to reduce health disparities caused by racism and lack of diversity in the health professions. Numerous studies have shown that racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people – even when insurance status, income, age and severity of conditions are comparable.
Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D., DMU president and CEO, thanked Glanton Fund donors and encouraged audience members to continue standing with the University in making medical education more accessible to students of color and enhancing the cultural competency and humility of aspiring health care professionals.
“These individuals make decisions, take actions and set policy based on their training and expertise as well as on their assumptions and implicit biases,” she said. “And that is where Des Moines University, with your support, can effect change – through the education we provide future health professionals and leaders.”
Effecting that change also will require shifting from debating whether health inequities exist – which they do – to identifying solutions to address them, said Omar Lateef, D.O., a 1999 DMU graduate, who gave a keynote address at the Glanton event. The president and chief executive officer of Rush University System for Health and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, he described the “death gap” in that city in life expectancy, which is 85 years for people living on Chicago’s Gold Coast, one of the nation’s most affluent neighborhoods, yet 69 years for people living in West Garfield Park, “just five subway stops west.”
He said Rush University Medical Center made fighting inequities one of its pillars – then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In 2020, it killed three times more Black and brown Americans than white Americans. Rush leaders chose to respond by adding beds and accepting 1,000 transfer patients from safety net hospitals in three months despite the cost. The medical center had the highest volume of COVID patients for its size and the lowest mortality, proving, he said, “it’s actually possible to drive change.”
One of the biggest challenges, Lateef noted, was investing in solutions to inequity typically doesn’t have a return on investment for a single hospital; in fact, they lower operating margins. But systems can identify solutions by “sharing that burden together.”
“It’s a time right now, where when things are tight, it’s actually more important to not turn away from the death gaps. It’s actually more important to double-down on a mission, on a true north, and fight inequity,” he said.
He praised Glanton Fund donors for supporting that mission.
“It is really truly an honor to be in a room with people that are putting action in front of words, that want to make a change,” he concluded. “I believe that this collective room and the people we’re training will solve the problems that we’ve created.”
Since its inception in 2004, the Glanton Fund has awarded more than $2.9 million in scholarships to 67 minority students. The fund has an endowment – the principal that generates money to support the fund’s purposes – of more than $4 million.
“This investment opens doors to individuals under-represented in the health professions and shows that DMU is committed to their success,” President Franklin said. “At the same time, the Glanton Fund’s impact goes far beyond the students who receive scholarships, because the fund supports diversity, equity and inclusion programs that touch all DMU students.
“Our students are being equipped to provide highly competent, culturally compassionate health care. They’re also being prepared to recognize and reduce the biases, racism and discrimination that truly harm people and populations,” she added. “Our students take these lessons with them as they enter the health care and public health workforce.”
President Franklin noted that because the Glanton Fund Event is largely supported and attended by the central Iowa community, it’s an opportunity for “all of us to put our money where our values are – in health quality, access and equality.”
“This is how all of us – not only the University, but also our community – change health care for the better,” she said.