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Insight + Impact

Addressing the Nation's Healthcare Disparities: A Call for Commitment A decade ago, the United States received an important "wake-up call" that put new meaning in Samuel Merritt University's mission to "positively transform the experience of care in diverse communities." Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, was a landmark 2002 report prepared by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the request of Congress. The report's findings told a story of disturbing differences in the availability, quality, and desirability of medical services that the American healthcare system provides to patients from racial and ethnic minorities. Summarizing the results of more than 100 studies of healthcare quality, Unequal Treatment found that racial and ethnic minority populations consistently tend to receive less care, lower quality care, and less desirable services. Differences in age, income, insurance coverage, treatment setting, and severity of disease did not explain the disparities. Above all, these disparities result in poorer health, greater disability, and earlier death for members of minority communities.

Unequal Treatment began a conversation that has reverberated through the healthcare professions and higher education. The Institute of Medicine recommended raising public and practitioner awareness, addressing conditions in healthcare settings, revising regulatory policies, and improving patient and provider education. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation picked up the challenge to examine the issue in greater depth. The Foundation's interest focused on how healthcare professionals may contribute to and can reduce inequities in healthcare. Kellogg funded additional IOM studies and supported the Sullivan Commission (headed by former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan) to examine how the composition and education of the healthcare workforce had contributed to healthcare disparities and could promote change.

The national conversation about healthcare disparities that resulted from these studies created a sense of urgency and delivered a consistent message: those institutions that educate our nation's health professionals must aggressively endeavor to reduce healthcare disparities across racial and ethnic communities. A critical component is to increase the number of students and faculty of color in our health sciences institutions, to make the healthcare workforce reflect the diversity of the population it serves.

Against the backdrop of this national discussion, Samuel Merritt University has engaged deeply with issues of diversity as they affect students, patients, staff, and faculty. "Diversity has long been one of our core values," states SMU president Sharon Diaz. "As a leading institution educating the healthcare workforce of the future, we have a unique opportunity to make an impact. We must select and meet the needs of a diverse student body, prepare them to work well in multi-disciplinary teams, and develop their capacity to serve patients from many different cultural backgrounds. The diversity of our northern California region provides the perfect setting to educate inclusive, respectful, and culturally sensitive practitioners."

Samuel Merritt University has put particular emphasis on addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse population over the past few years. As the Institute of Medicine and the Sullivan Commission reports recommended, this requires a multi-dimensional approach. To bring specialized expertise to this effort, Kathleen Roberts, JD, PhD, joined SMU as the University's first Chief Diversity Officer in May 2011. Dr. Roberts is spearheading the University's strategic work to "institutionalize a culture that is diverse, equitable and inclusive," in the words of SMU's Board of Regents. The University has set specific goals for building leadership, improving campus climate, attracting and retaining students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups, and increasing cultural competence and responsiveness.

As part of this multi-faceted commitment, SMU is reaching out to develop strong collaborations with faculty and community organizations to better serve underrepresented minority students and the communities from which they come. These initiatives range from providing patient care services in clinics targeted at serving racial and ethnic minority communities to partnerships with public K–12 schools that stimulate interest in health careers and mentor potential future students. Because underrepresented minority students often face greater obstacles in gaining admission to and financing higher education, the University is examining its admissions policies and practices and developing a robust plan for expanding scholarships for underrepresented students.

The Sullivan Commission stated in its 2004 report, "The rationale for increasing diversity in the health workforce is evident: increased diversity will improve the overall health of the nation. This is true not only for members of racial and ethnic minority groups, but also for an entire population that will benefit from a health workforce that is culturally sensitive and focused on patient care...Excellence in health professions education is difficult to achieve in a culturally limited environment."

In December 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reiterated the need to address diversity and health disparities when it launched Healthy People 2020, the ten-year agenda for improving the nation's health. Inspirational at its core, the vision of this document is to create a society in which all people live long, healthy lives. Building on the work of the past decade, one of the four overarching goals of Healthy People is "to achieve health equity, eliminate disparities, and improve the health of all groups."

Samuel Merritt University has taken the challenge of eliminating health disparities as its own. 2012 was a significant year of re-examination to determine how SMU will provide an institutional culture and education that meet this challenge. As the University undertakes new initiatives, research and study will continue. The Regents, administrators, faculty, staff, and students of Samuel Merritt University dedicate themselves to advancing the important goals of diversity, inclusion, and health equity.