Anti-Racism Committee Works to Improve Cancer Care and Research
Eliminating the race-based health equity gap starts from within the department, says Boston University School of Medicine
Physician speaking with cancer patient
FatCamera, Getty Images

Over the past few years, clinicians have become painfully aware of the impact racism has on a patient’s health. While their institutions scramble to establish antiracist practices, those on the ground are reminded on a daily basis of the urgency of this work. Their patients and families feel the negative health effects of racial discrimination every day.

When the department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Boston University School of Medicine began to talk about their role in eliminating the race-based health equity gap, it quickly became clear that their efforts needed to start from within. In December 2020, they formed the Hematology and Medical Oncology Anti-Racism Steering Committee and got to work creating an anti-racist agenda for the department.

To learn more, we spoke with Laura Lowery, PhD, chair of the committee, and Matthew Kulke, MD, chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Boston Medical Center (BMC).

HealthCity: Why did you form an anti-racism committee?

Laura Lowery, PhD: We did so to promote an actively antiracist, inclusive, and diverse community for our department. With members from our faculty, staff, and administration, we meet monthly to engage in dialogue and implement initiatives to improve our department. We are working toward taking other concrete measures to create a more supportive, respectful, and diverse environment for everyone. We know we have a long road ahead of us, and that change is not going to come easily. But we are here and we are committed.

HC: Why is anti-racism work important to you?

Matthew Kulke, MD: At BMC, we justifiably take pride in our diversity, but we realized that racism among our own faculty and staff (many times unconscious and unintentional) was having a very real negative impact on us and on our patients. Our mission is to provide great cancer care and conduct innovative research that transcends race and socioeconomic status. To do that effectively, we first need to address racism right here at home, in our department. As the saying goes, "Doctor, heal thyself."

HC: Were there certain areas you wanted to address first?

LL: The very first step was to be visible to our own faculty and staff—to let them know we are here actively doing this work. I’ve spoken at faculty meetings and visited with clinic staff, both front desk workers and nurses, to get their perspectives and let them know they have a voice. We set up a website as well as an anonymous online reporting system, so anyone can submit incidents of discrimination, bias, and microaggressions.

HC: What have been some of the initiatives you and the committee have accomplished so far?

LL: In addition to our new website and anonymous reporting system, we are creating new signage in the clinic to show our patients that we strive to maintain a workforce that is as diverse as the communities we serve. We have partnered with Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine, and Boston University Graduate Medical Sciences to participate in the Commitment to Operationalize Racial Equity, and as part of this, we have two strategic goals for the year. The first is to be better at tracking racial equity data, and use this to influence our hiring decisions. The second is to provide monthly training opportunities to get this anti-racism work on everyone’s radar. We have conducted a Bias Reduction in Internal Medicine Training (BRIM) which helps identify cultural stereotypes that can influence judgments, decision-making, and behaviors in unwanted and unintended ways. Our committee has also organized Microaggression Bystander Trainings and welcomed several guest speakers on a range of different topics that promote an anti-racist culture in our section.

HC: What goals do you hope to accomplish?

MK: I’d like to say that we are going to eliminate racism completely in our department—and that’s certainly our goal—but it’s hard to overcome hundreds of years of history with just a few meetings. On the positive side, even in the relatively short amount of time we’ve been doing our programs, we’ve seen an increased openness to talking about racism and related issues. While nobody is perfect, we’ve seen more sensitivity and awareness of issues related to racism. These are just initial steps, but it has been exciting to see that, just by taking our first steps, we are already starting to see a better sense of community.

HC: How do we, both individually and as a global society, remain optimistic and engaged in making changes while trying to make a difference?

MK: The challenge and problem of racism can seem overwhelming. One way to think about it is that you don’t necessarily need to be the one who wins the prize for eliminating racism in America. Each and every one of us can have an impact on the interactions we have every day. We’ve learned in our programs that most of us tend to talk to and interact with the same group of colleagues when we come to work. I’ve found that, for me, making a specific effort to get to know people outside of my "comfort zone" is a first step. It’s amazing how finding commonalities that we all share, as well as hearing different perspectives, can help enrich our own lives as well as the lives of the people and patients we work with.

LL: I have struggled with this myself, and it’s why I am here. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But what I can do is show up and commit to learning how to be better every day—how to be more inclusive, how to be more compassionate, how to be more antiracist. Our society has been built on hundreds of years of systemic racism, and even if we have the best intentions, we all have unconsciously internalized societal norms without realizing it. So, it is our responsibility to take measures to actively build a more inclusive and diverse community where everyone feels respected and can bring their unique gifts and perspectives to the table. That is our ultimate goal here.