Dr. Louis Sullivan: Diversity a Key to Better Medical Care

Public Health

More diversity in the health care professions would help improve understanding and communication with patients, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., said during a presentation at the Brown School.

“Patients must become active participants in managing their care,” Dr. Sullivan said during an April 9 address in Brown Lounge. “That’s one reason diversity is important.”

The lecture was part of the Brown School’s 2014-15 Distinguished Lecture Series and was co-sponsored by the Policy Forum, the Institute for Public Health, and the Brown School’s Diversity Committee.

Sullivan is president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, which he helped found; and chairman of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions, an effort in which Washington University is a participant.

Diversity is important not just in physicians, but in nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists and others who have important roles in patient care, he said.

“The level of diversity in the health professions is not what it should be,” he said, particularly in specialties, where minorities are “vastly underrepresented.”

The Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta was established in 1978 in response to the lack of black doctors in Georgia.  In addition to schools like Morehouse, Sullivan added that a National Institutes of Health mentoring program for young scientists and more tuition assistance can help encourage more students from communities that have been underrepresented to pursue careers in the health professions.

Dr. Sullivan traced improvements in medical education to a critical 1910 report, “Medical Education in the United States and Canada.”

Improvements in population health since that time have been dramatic, he said.  Although there is still a disparity between the life expectancies of blacks and whites in the U.S., the gap is narrower than it used to be.  “The health of blacks today is better than whites 100 years ago,” he said.

“Remarkable progress” has also been made in world health, with the eradication of once-dreaded diseases such as smallpox and ongoing improvements in public health.

He hopes further progress can be made through efforts like the Sullivan Alliance, which encourages collaboration between medical schools and schools with large minority populations to serve as role models and mentors.

More diversity among health professionals was one of several “challenges for the 21st Century” that Sullivan suggested. Others included:

  • Improved access to health services for all, which has already been partially accomplished by the Affordable Care Act and could be redoubled through Medicaid expansion.
  • More comprehensive and effective health promotion and preventive efforts.
  • Less bureaucracy.
  • Less political ideology.
  • Higher ethical standards to maximize trust.
  • Protecting humanism in health care.

Asked how the social work and public health communities can play a more prominent role, Dr. Sullivan replied that it was important to educate the public and policymakers on the benefits and values that come from the work of public health employees and social workers and insist on having a voice in policies. Partnerships with health advocacy organizations can help, he added.

Dr. Sullivan noted one other quality that advocates will need to navigate today’s choppy health-care waters:

“Persistence,” he said.  “It takes time for things to change.”