Will Ross, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and associate dean of diversity at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said he chose a career in medicine because of his upbringing in Memphis.
During a presentation at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center on Friday, he shared his experiences of growing up in Memphis in the 1960s in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the Dixie Homes Housing Project, which was one of the first public housing communities established in the city.
Dr. Ross’s presentation titled, “Looking to the Future: Healing a Community,” was the culmination of the university’s Black History Month observances. His discussion focused on the social and economic barriers faced in health care today by the minority population, as well as what led to his passion as an advocate for health equity.
Throughout his presentation, Dr. Ross shared historical images of the city of Memphis. Images including the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and Martin Luther King Jr. “These images are not just images I saw across the television screens, I saw these images growing up,” he said.
Dr. Ross shared an experience from his childhood that made him want to become a doctor. His sister, who was just 6 years old at the time, was having trouble breathing. With no adult to help, he and his other sister walked her to the nearest hospital, John Gaston Hospital, where Regional One Hospital sits today, to receive treatment. He said they were ignored, but after standing their ground, eventually received assistance.
“My values are to deliver culturally competent care. At the time I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I wanted to be treated with respect and dignity,” Dr. Ross said. “Growing up, I thought if I ever have an opportunity to become a doctor, I’m going to set a standard. Everyone who walks into my office is going to be treated with respect and I’m going to do everything in my power to create a forum, a curriculum to allow all students in this country to train and to understand the importance of delivering culturally competent health care.”
He has been successful in his vision, establishing the Saturday Neighborhood Health Clinic for uninsured patients in St. Louis, as well as health care programs in Ethiopia and South Africa. He has also brought a focus on social disparities in health care into his curriculum, taking students outside the clinical settings, and into underserved neighborhoods in St. Louis.
He gave a charge to UTHSC to take students out of the classrooms and expose them to the community. Taking them into areas, communities and neighborhoods with limited resources.
“This has to be delivered in a much more holistic manner,” Dr. Ross said. “It has to be attentive to how students learn. Our students learn by thinking it through, by doing it, by having experiential activities.”
His presentation was timely, since UTHSC recently identified the topic of social determinants of health as the focus of its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The multi-year commitment will integrate the topic of social determinants of health into the curriculum, enhancing training. Outcomes of the QEP have the potential for not only transforming UTHSC’s academic programs and student learning, but the health care of the communities our graduates will serve.
Social factors greatly impact health. Dr. Ross said the clinical setting contributes an estimated 10 percent to the health of an individual, while other factors including available transportation, employment, access to affordable meals and produce, and education, account for the remaining 90 percent. These social determinants of health drive not only our individual health, but the health of our community as a whole.
He closed his presentation by saying, “When we leverage our skillsets to drive a change, that’s inclusion and that’s powerful,” he said. “We need to have allies. There’s not enough of us to do this alone. We need to do this together. There are not enough black people, or white people, or Latinos to make the change, but there are enough Americans to make the changes happen.”