medical personnel kneel outside during a "White Coats for Black Lives" demonstration

Do not let this moment pass

José E. Rodríguez, MD, Professor in Family and Preventive Medicine and the Associate Vice President for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (HEDI) at University of Utah Health

After nearly two years in the interim role, Dr. José Rodríguez was appointed Associate Vice President (AVP) for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (HEDI) in March 2020. He is the first AVP of HEDI to serve under a Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)—a position elevated to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion work is extended throughout the University of Utah—including main campus and the University of Utah Health system. Under the leadership of Mary Ann Villarreal, the inaugural vice president for EDI, Dr. Rodríguez said there has been renewed commitment to enhancing EDI efforts across campus.

“This year we’ve been able to really focus our work in HEDI by looking for opportunities for improvement through evaluating the great work already being done,” said Rodríguez. “Since Dr. Villarreal’s appointment the work has become more focused and organized across our campus. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the health disparities that systemic anti-Black racism has caused, with the highest death rate among Black Americans. The brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others renewed the national conversation on anti-Black racism, and our shared outrage has brought increased attention to this work. More people than ever are interested in engaging in it. It is so important that we do not let this moment pass.”

In his first year as AVP, Rodríguez has focused on organizing an efficient and effective EDI team at the health sciences level.  In addition, increased focus was given to medical student diversity and overall health sciences faculty diversity and inclusion initiatives such as creating affinity groups. In just the past year, they have already seen some success based on the efforts of teams across health sciences.

“In fall 2019, the first-year medical student class had six underrepresented medicine (URiM) students,” said Rodriguez. “The fall 2020 class that just started has 12. The Department of Family and Preventive medicine has gone from two underrepresented faculty to eight in four years, the dermatology residency went from 0 URiM residents to 3 in 3 years. In the same time frame, the Biosciences PhD programs went from 0% to 30% URiM doctoral students. The physician assistant program is also a great example because as its student diversity has improved, so has its ranking, proving that increasing diversity is associated with increased quality.”

There are currently associate and assistant deans of HEDI in the school of medicine, and the colleges of health and nursing are or will be recruiting for a similar position in their respective colleges. These deans for EDI then report to both the dean of their college and HEDI.

“This structure is helping us to get the work moving on the grassroots level,” said Rodríguez. “Each school and college has unique opportunities and challenges, so the more we have champions of this work doing the work on the ground, the better. It is clear that this work is a community effort. Our successes belong to the health sciences community.”

In addition to organizing HEDI’s work, Rodríguez has published several articles tackling disparity issues in academic medicine. A recent piece, “Dear White People,” written with diversity leaders from across the country give steps that all of us can take to eradicate anti-Black racism from medicine.

Just last week, his team published Sharing the Power of White Privilege to Catalyze Positive Change in Academic Medicine on how we can move from systems that divide to systems that unite. Another recent article he was part of, “Abolish the Minority Woman Tax,” sheds light on the unique burdens faced by women in the field, and also how women of color, especially Black women, are left out of the research, data and conversations on gender equity. Rodríguez and his colleagues address the need to elevate the voices of Black women in academic medicine and to add more scholarship, exploring and validating their experiences.

Using science and research to inform his work with HEDI, Rodríguez said it would be his dream to work himself out of a job.

“If every leader made equity, diversity, and inclusion the foundation of their decision-making, then we would not need HEDI officers,” said Rodríguez. “I look forward to that day, but I recognize that it may not happen in my lifetime. The goal would be for everyone—not just people of color—to view things through an EDI lens and bring that perspective to every search committee and policy-making table. I’d love for this to become part of our DNA because it will make our entire institution more excellent.”

You can find more of Rodriguez’s published works here.

Find out more about HEDI’s work and how you can get involved here.