The Keck School of Medicine of USC has developed a curriculum covering health justice to be implemented in the fall of 2021. The new educational program will be known as the Physician-Citizen-Scholar curriculum.

The program will include mentoring from faculty, content on health policy, population health, public health and structural competency. Students will be placed in clinical venues so they may witness the obstacles to care faced by underserved patients in the community. At graduation, all students will receive a certificate in Health Justice.

The introduction of health justice to the medical school curriculum demonstrates the Keck School’s deep commitment to equity, justice and structural transformation to ameliorate health disparities. It also recognizes that physicians trained in health justice will be best equipped to stand at the forefront of social change.

After George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, Laura Mosqueda, MD, dean of the Keck School, wrote in a message that the death of Floyd and others “are symptoms of the same inequalities that contribute to poorer health for people of color in the United States.”

“We were inspired by Dr. Mosqueda saying to us that she wants the Keck School to be known for social justice,” said Donna Elliott, MD, EdD, vice dean for medical education and chair of the Department of Medical Education. She added that inequalities seen during the pandemic are not new experiences for the Black community.

The pandemic has hit people of color much harder than white people: There are about 15 fatalities per 100,000 white Los Angeles County residents, which is half the fatality rate of Black, Latino and Pacific Islander residents.

“This isn’t an a-ha moment in our history,” she said. “This is just a moment where a light has been shined on what’s been happening for decades.”

Elliott and Ron Ben-Ari, MD, associate dean for curriculum, had started planning for a health justice themed curriculum as far back as September 2018.

“What’s remarkable is this confluence of events,” Ben-Ari said. “The pandemic laid bare the health disparities in our community. We were already having a national conversation about worse outcomes in people of color and poor communities from the pandemic. Then on top of that, the public broadcasting of the killing of George Floyd further laid bare the systemic racism and police brutality in our society.”

“It’s taking a step back to look at the root cause of why patients have certain health risks,” Elliott added, “and then arming students with that knowledge to help them build skills to help them advocate for their patients. A large focus of our curriculum is advocacy, to allow students to engage with communities in a way where they’re not bystanders.”

Ben-Ari stressed that health justice awareness can only make a doctor better at their job.

“We have always taught students to seek to understand their patients,” he said. “And the reality is that, as it’s being revealed in this moment, even though people think they understand, there is a huge disparity between knowing someone’s medical history and having an understanding of the historical scope and the structural elements that actually influence their current circumstances and their care.”

— Landon Hall