Doctors treat disease, fix broken bones and offer advice on exercise and diet, but USC Professor Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD, thinks they can and should do more.
Overcrowded housing, food insecurity, homelessness, poverty, the lack of community-based health care services for marginalized populations — they all deserve attention. And doctors and other health experts can advocate for them.
“We have this immense technical and intellectual capacity to improve the lives of people through improving their health,” Bluthenthal said. “But if we want to be truly effective and reap the benefits of everything we’re learning, we need to figure out a way to extend this information into communities, into people’s homes, into people’s neighborhoods.”
That mentality is at the heart of Bluthenthal’s vision for the new Office for Social Justice within the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The initiative advocates for fairness in health policy and equal access to health care and other social services. The effort also promotes community well-being.
“It’s true to who we are as Trojans,” said Keck School Dean Laura Mosqueda, MD, citing the university’s wide-ranging research and policy expertise and its dedication to solving society’s “wicked problems.” “Who better than us to take on these challenging issues at the nexus of health and social justice?”
Bluthenthal is a natural choice to lead the charge as associate dean for social justice. A skilled health researcher, he is a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and member of the Institute for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention Research at USC.
He’s also been fighting for societal fairness and equity for decades. He launched a needle exchange program in the Bay Area during the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. He sought new ways to reduce HIV risk and improve testing in underserved communities. And more recently, he’s pursued strategies to stem the spread of serious illnesses like hepatitis C related to the opioid epidemic.
“I want to figure out ways to make life better for disadvantaged people,” he said. “That’s always been a big part of what I do.”
Social justice and medicine: New USC office bolsters efforts across medical campus and beyond
Researchers at the medical school have increasingly advocated for the health of poor and marginalized populations. Bluthenthal cites people like Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, MD, a public health expert and advocate who has launched cancer prevention programs in underserved areas of Los Angeles. Preventive medicine researcher Kayla de la Haye, PhD, is part of a USC team testing whether artificial intelligence can improve healthy eating among kids in Antelope Valley. And there’s physician Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr, MD, who oversees a clinic that provides urgent care to people in jail and helps others struggling with substance use.
“The truth is, we’re already doing a ton of this work,” Bluthenthal said. “We have all kinds of community-engaged activities that are service- and research-related. It’s about figuring out how to help more of it happen and celebrating our collaboration and achievements.”
Mosqueda believes the social justice focus will transform medical education and give doctors and other health professionals the knowledge they need to engage with their communities in new ways.
As an example, Mosqueda described how researchers at the school recently uncovered evidence that pollution can harm fetuses as they develop.
“Now let’s see if there are other parts of the university we can connect with to help create policy change,” she said. “What can we do to help protect pregnant women who live next to a freeway? We have to start making these connections in a very thoughtful, intentional way.”
Understanding the consequences of social and health disparities
Bluthenthal sees part of his new role as helping people understand that societal choices can have drastic consequences for health. One example he cited is allowing health care to be a profit-driven industry. Another is ignoring gentrification that pushes low-income people out of their traditional neighborhoods and often into homelessness.
Other countries manage to provide health care to all of their citizens, Bluthenthal said, and many of them have longer life expectancies, greater patient satisfaction and lower medical costs compared to the United States.
“There are real humans who will die today because we aren’t providing care to people who need it,” he said. “There are people who will get hepatitis C today, who might get HIV today, because we’re making a choice not to provide them with the care they need.”
Building social justice and medicine office at USC starts with listening tour
Bluthenthal’s first objective is to meet with experts across the medical school and university. He wants to better understand the social justice programs already underway and how they can be strengthened, connected and expanded.
His long-term goals include helping health experts learn how to advocate for change at the policy level. He hopes the new office will become an incubator for promising ideas, providing funding and support to launch programs that can narrow societal gaps in health and well-being.
Another primary mission is training medical professionals to engage with what he describes as the 60 percent of health that isn’t about disease, human biology or quality of care. Instead, it’s about tackling broader issues like access to healthy food, reliable transportation and economic security.
These are difficult challenges. But Bluthenthal is committed to providing doctors and other health care providers with the skills they’ll need to do that hard work.
“Even if we’re great at providing quality care, if we’re not extending our hands and bodies and expertise into the community to engage with people, it won’t really matter,” he said.
— Eric Lindberg
A long history of social justice advocacy
Ricky Bluthenthal has been fighting for society’s forgotten and underserved populations since his childhood in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Among his accomplishments:
- Volunteered in high school at a local hospital for people with disabilities and visited teens at juvenile corrections facilities.
- Led the student body’s anti-apartheid movement at UC Santa Cruz.
- Pushed for more funding to support first-generation and low-income students as an undergrad.
- Helped launch a syringe exchange program in Oakland for people who inject drugs.
- Faced a law enforcement crackdown for allegedly promoting drug use through the needle exchange (and was acquitted of all charges).
- Developed new strategies to reduce HIV risk and improve HIV testing among injection drug users and men who have sex with men.
“I like the intellectual aspect of research, but the value of it is when you help people,” he said. “I’ve tried to keep that in mind — how to act on what I learn in a way that creates meaningful change for the folks in my studies.”