UK Neurologists Working to Ensure Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 14, 2020) - A time for action.

It is a phrase many in the country are focusing on and putting an effort towards in hopes of improving racial justice. It is no surprise that meaningful conversations and movements are happening at the University of Kentucky. The UK College of Medicine's Department of Neurology is showing itself as a leader and is taking the phrase to heart. Dr. Larry Goldstein, chair, says their proactive approach goes hand in hand with their department’s core values.

“Two of our values are caring, including for each other and collective responsibility. Having a department that lives these values - supports all of our faculty, trainees and staff.  I felt it important to have the position statement that was drafted by a group of our residents reflect the entire department’s views so that each of our people and those we serve understand they are not alone and that each is valued,” said Goldstein.

The position statement was adopted by an anonymous vote of both the department’s faculty and trainees and reads in part, “As healthcare providers, we have an obligation to do no harm. But our obligations go further to prevent harm from befalling others because of our inaction or silence.” It goes on to state, “We proudly stand with other members of the medical community and proclaim Black Lives Matter. We stand with the people of color and others in our community and across the United States in denouncing the abhorrent treatment that Black people, other persons of color, and other underrepresented groups have endured.”

The stance of solidarity was shown at an event hosted by UK’s six health colleges and UK HealthCare. “Taking steps toward a bright future can seem like a monumental task. Knowing that we are not alone can keep us motivated and moving forward,” said Dr. Rodolfo Lewy, a third-year child neurology resident.

Lewy, a Puerto Rican native, spoke at the event. “I wrote the speech primarily as an open invitation to engage in our own humanity.” He explained that change can start with something as private as a conversation with one person or reading a few educational articles. “Whether you’re soft-spoken or outspoken, introverted or extroverted, everyone can do something to help turn our idealistic views of the world into a reality.”

Turning it into a reality is something Lewy takes personally not just because he wants to see a better world each day but also because of the work he does at UK. “As a pediatrician and a neurologist, I feel we are charged with protecting the future of our patients. It is part of our responsibility to promote awareness and lasting change as we lead by example. We as the medical community should forever strive to serve our communities without biases, to give back, invest, and educate our communities and inspire people forward to the best of our ability,” he said.

The Department of Neurology’s statement for equity, diversity and inclusion doesn’t only show a stand in solidarity but it goes a step further – calling for an “effort to counter decades of neglect” – by committing to recruit colleagues from underrepresented groups and ensuring that “they thrive in an environment that is free from racism and bigotry.”

That is something neurologist Dr. Ima Ebong has been working on since she was a student in the UK College of Medicine. In 2010, Ebong started the University of Kentucky Medical Education Development program designed specifically to recruit prospective medical students from underrepresented backgrounds. “I wanted to establish a program for the College that could be sustainable and help it to achieve one of its goals of a diverse student body,” she said.

Ebong is originally from the Bahamas. After her time at UK’s College of Medicine as a student, she completed her residency and fellowship at the Jackson Memorial Hospital/University of Miami Department of Neurology. In 2018, she was the first Black woman to be hired in the Department of Neurology at UK. “To be honest, in this 21st century, this should not be regarded as an accomplishment," she said. "This is a failure of academic medicine when Black physicians are still achieving these types of firsts.”

A year later she took on the role of the UK Department of Neurology Director of Diversity and Inclusion. In her new role, she is continuing the work she started as a medical student – wholeheartedly committed to seeing more diversity among her colleagues. “Steps we have begun to take include incorporating lectures on racism in medicine and social justice in the residency curriculum and in the Neurology Grand Rounds series.  I will also be working with the residency program directors to ensure that we develop an anti-racist recruitment and selection process. I also will hold our department accountable in the recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of URM faculty.”

Dr. Ebong is also now taking that passion beyond the UK campus after being invited by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) to serve on its Special Commission on Racism, Equity, and Social Justice. She says the goal of the commission is to determine immediate as well as long term goals that the AAN needs to achieve to become a truly anti-racist and inclusive organization.

“I was honored to have been chosen to be part of the Commission, especially as a junior faculty member and recent graduate of the AAN’s Diversity Leadership Program. The mere fact that AAN saw this national – and international – movement to dismantle systemic racism and made a firm decision to look within itself and see how it has contributed to systemic racism within the field is highly commendable,” said Ebong. She says a key to seeing this movement be a success is ensuring that underrepresented colleagues in particular are not punished for speaking out against racism and injustice. “For far too long, physicians who looked like me were expected to keep quiet and accept the status quo in order to advance their careers. As physicians, we all swore by the Hippocratic oath - Primum non nocere – in regards to providing care to our patients and avoiding harm.  It is harmful to be complicit.  It is harmful to be silent,” she explained.

Dr. Ebong says their work is just beginning but that she is proud to be part of a department at UK that is being recognized as a leader. Lewy echoes that and believes it is imperative to their mission of becoming an anti-racist society that every member acknowledge they all have different experiences and backgrounds that brought them to where they are now. “Some of these experiences have been different simply because of the color of our skin; others because of where we grew up, or what languages we speak, or how we speak them. We need to stop coming up with reasons to categorize and separate ourselves from each other, and just start treating each other as different versions of a human being. This isn't something to shy away from. It's a part of who we are, and it's going to be part of the tools that we use to create a better, more equitable world.”

It is a mission motivated by those two core values of their department and the oath they all take as physicians, which is why Goldstein says it is crucial that the medical community is at the forefront of the efforts.

“Disparities in health care and health outcomes is antithetical to the goals of the oath we take as physicians," he said. "Having a diverse, equitable and inclusive medical community is essential for addressing these long-standing inequities in addition to being consistent with the underlying principles upon which our country is based.”