Jonasson Lecture: Dr. Reede discusses the path to diversity, inclusion, and excellence

“It’s through understanding the policies and actions of the past that we can better identify the antecedents and precipitants of today’s challenges—persistent challenges related to disparities and exclusion, marginalization, and minimization,” said Joan Y. Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA, at Tuesday afternoon’s Olga M. Jonasson Lecture, A Path Toward Diversity, Inclusion, and Excellence. She expressed her hope that understanding the past can bring health care and society “closer to the principles of social justice and equity,” which will ultimately increase quality of care for all.

Dr. Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership and professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, said that “there is a continuous cycle and struggle toward justice.” The struggle has included “many courageous individuals who at times are willing to be the first to enter, who are willing to lead and foster real and sustainable change,” she said, noting several examples, including Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. These individuals formed the bedrock of future accomplishments by women and minority groups, but it is important to “talk about the ‘we’ in the word ‘power,’ because it’s what we can do collectively to create change that can be so important.”

Diversity and inclusion “help us realize our values, help us deal with complex issues and problems, and ensure our viability as institutions and professions,” Dr. Reede said. A diverse workforce helps to “promote distributive justice and access to our systems,” which is accomplished by making sure voices from all groups are heard and can truly effect change. Inclusive representation allows complex problems to be examined through different perspectives that can provide a more complete understanding of the issue. And it is clear that diversity is paramount to ensuring the viability of surgery through an understanding of the shifting demographics of the country. By 2050, it is projected that the U.S. will be a minority-majority country, and the people going into medicine and surgery will need to reflect that reality. “If we don’t capture that potential, if we don’t nurture those students’ interests, we won’t have those individuals who are our profession and our future,” Dr. Reede said.

The effects of a lack of diversity and inclusion are apparent when looking at the proportion of minority women professors in the U.S. “Today, in essence, there are roughly 200 African-American female professors in the U.S. out of 155,000,” said Dr. Reede, noting that stark proportion carries into higher leadership levels.

Through her leadership position in Harvard Medical School’s Office for Diversity Inclusion & Community Partnership (DICP), Dr. Reede has been part of creating programs that reach out to minority populations to spread awareness that careers in medicine and other science fields are true possibilities. Some of the programs the DICP operates include hosting the New England Science Symposium, which provides a forum for all levels of college students to share their health care-related research; the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in Minority Health Policy, which focuses on preparing physicians from underrepresented groups for leadership roles; and many others. “There is talent out there,” Dr. Reede said. “We need to be identifying and nurturing these individuals to stay the course.”

Dr. Reede is working to turn health care and the sciences into fields in which diversity and inclusive representation are standard. She has been able to witness modern society’s movement in that direction, as well as what life was like before these concepts existed. Near the end of the lecture, she recalled that she was born into a time of even greater disparities, in which she would walk with her grandmother through town and see buildings that would commonly display signs saying that people who looked like her could not enter. Only a few generations before that, her great-great-grandmother had been born a slave. “So you think of possibilities—here was a woman, born a slave; here was my grandmother, who cleaned houses; and here I am, a dean, a professor,” she said. “We each have the power to achieve our potential if we recognize, learn from, and honor our past.”