Student Initiated Diversity Forums 

Hilary Gary - Diversity Forum
L2 Hillary Gary leads the second Diversity Forum

Students Advocating Medical Equity (SAME) Committee for Curriculum Development –Hillary Gary (Class or 2020), Anthony Pham (Class of 2020), De’Angellica Vaughn-Allen (Class of 2020)

Imagine you are a fourth-year resident on a flight home from a wedding. Suddenly, two rows ahead of you, a woman screams that her husband is unresponsive. A flight attendant begins to assess the situation and calls for someone to request a physician. You raise your hand to get her attention. She sees you but states, “Oh no sweetie. We are looking for actual physicians or nurses, we don’t have time to talk to you.” You attempt to inform her that you are a physician but your statements are cut short with condescending remarks. You are an African American female.

This true story made its way through the news last year while we were in the first semester of medical school. It brought attention to the issue of discrimination experienced by minority and female physicians across the country. Though our careers in medicine had just begun we were already discovering that while these situations are seldom so deliberately and obviously caustic, they are not rare.

Often when reading stories of discrimination in the news we can swear to ourselves that such a thing would never happen here—that’s not who we are—but as the saying goes, “the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.”  After an incident of insensitivity on the class of 2020’s Facebook page devolved into a 3 day, 200-comment thread witnessed by all, many students realized that the camaraderie within our cohort was not as ironclad as it seemed. This event led to students coming together to discuss what they had experienced individually, bringing awareness to their classmates who had not fully appreciated their peers’ discomfort.

For us, these frustrations seemed to boil down to a lack of cultural understanding on our campus. We believed that because we were entering the healthcare profession, our cohort had an intrinsic tendency toward empathy. We believed we needed to exercise this empathy now, collectively as a class, and not reserve it for future doctor-patient relationships. We believed empathy needed to permeate all aspects of our lives, not be compartmentalized into strictly the professional sphere. Indeed, when doctors leave the hospital, they do not cease to be doctors. Considering the effort the school had put into our curriculum to reflect their values of producing culturally competent and empathetic physicians, we believed they would be receptive to our ideas.

First, though, we reached out to classmates to see how they would feel about having their experiences presented anonymously to the class. It was crucial to us that we present scenarios for discussion that occurred here on campus. However, we also recognized that talking about someone else’s lived experience requires ample care and sensitivity. Most everyone that we approached was very receptive. Initially the idea was presented to the Students Advocating Medical Equity group to try to include this information with the incoming class’s orientation. They agreed that a student-led format would amplify the school’s overall efforts to highlight the importance of empathy and cultural awareness in medicine. We just needed to reach out to the curriculum faculty to see how they felt about it.

Our biggest concern going forward was whether we would have faculty support. We were worried that directly addressing incidents of discrimination may be seen as too critical or divisive. To our surprise, though, they were 100% supportive of the idea. With their collaboration, what was initially designed as an event for orientation evolved into the current set of four forums to be held through the first year of medical school. The forums address peer-peer relationships, the doctor-patient relationship, implicit biases, and the historical precedence for healthcare disparities. As we have moved forward through the planning stages we have been infinitely impressed with the support and trust the faculty have given us.

We held the first forum this past August for the Class of 2021 (L1s). It was run entirely by student facilitators from the Class of 2020 (L2s), though faculty members were invited to attend to listen. Despite a few functional hiccups (we’re talking about you, microphones!) the feedback we received from faculty and students alike was resoundingly positive. Students were glad to have space to discuss culturally sensitive topics without a feeling of judgement, and faculty were grateful for the opportunity to reflect on how they can help create a culture of inclusivity here on campus.

Moving forward, we hope to continue to have a meaningful impact with future forums. We hope to create a program that future classes can reproduce so that over time we can see lasting, generational change here at LSUAt their root, the forums aim to teach students about others’ lived experiences within an environment of thoughtful conversation and mutual respect. We believe that this kind of person-to-person, face-to-face conversation is the best pathway toward common understanding, and only through understanding can we hope to both improve the experiences of minorities on our campus and the quality of LSU physicians.