Examining Health Disparities as Social Justice

Students, faculty and staff packed the auditorium to hear Wayne Riley, M.D., M.P.H., MBA, deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture in January.

Riley, CEO of Meharry Medical College and professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, shared what he believes King would think about health care disparity and inequity in America today.

On the topic of inequities, he shared continued concerns regarding the physician workforce; specifically, that less than 2 percent of U.S. physicians were African-American in 1960 and that, according to the latest data available, only 4 percent of U.S. physicians are African-American and 5 percent Hispanic.

Yet, studies show that minority doctors have a great propensity to practice in underserved areas. He noted the same trend lines were true for nurses.

“African-American physicians tend to gravitate toward the areas that are underserved. This has been our calling for many years, and highlights the fact that, Dr. King would argue, it is an investment that pays off in terms of where they work,” said Riley, who called for greater diversity, and more women, throughout all health care professions and academia.

While discussing health care disparities, Riley cited crucial gaps in care between different populations across the lifespan, with studies showing life expectancy for black men and women remains roughly a decade less than white men and women.

“Dr. King would be very worried about this body of work that would indicate that we have a lot to do in the house of medicine, and he would challenge us to do better,” Riley said.
As part of this event sponsored by the Schools of Nursing and Medicine, the Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award was presented to dual recipients: VUSN’s Bonnie Pilon, pictured above right on previous page with Dean Conway-Welch, D.S.N., R.N., was honored for expanding access to health care for Nashville’s underserved and VUSM’s Adetola Kassim, M.D., M.S., for his extensive work with stem cell research.