A MEDICAL STUDENT’S FIGHT AGAINST INEQUITY
Down on one knee in pristine white coats, UC San Diego School of Medicine students rallied against a public health emergency — systemic racism — that had been catapulted into the public eye by the death of five African Americans in five separate incidents over a five-month period in 2020.
Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down while jogging. Breonna Taylor was shot and killed during a botched police raid on her apartment. Daniel Prude and George Floyd both died while under police restraint: Prude while suffering from a mental health episode, Floyd for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by police responding to a call of a man asleep in his car at a fast-food restaurant.
Betial Asmerom, a fourth-year medical student and one of the organizers of the student protest, said that for years Black, Latino and Indigenous medical students had been organizing to call attention to racism and disparities in medical education and health care.
— Betial Asmerom
The deaths of Arbery, Taylor, Prude, Floyd and Brooks resulted in wide-scale demonstrations protesting police abuse and racial injustice in the United States.
Students like Asmerom choose medical education as a way to learn how to heal. In a country roiling with anger, racial tensions and despair, they felt the call to heal even stronger. But it would not be an easy task, and the concurrent COVID-19 pandemic, which was disproportionately impacting communities of color, would only make things harder.
“My family are immigrants from Eritrea. I chose medicine because I want to serve my community and all communities impacted by inequity,” said Asmerom, who is enrolled in a dual-degree program called the UC San Diego School of Medicine Program in Medical Education – Health Equity. She has already earned her master’s degree in public health, with her medical degree soon to follow.
The collision of the anti-racism movement and glaring health care inequities sharpened by the pandemic prompted Asmerom to speak out louder and more boldly.
“When we first started hearing about the pandemic and all the data coming out, one of the first things I said was ‘I can’t wait until data on the pandemic is published by race. I already know what it’s going to say,’” said Asmerom.
“These events really lit me up to keep my focus on equity and advocacy work because we’ve seen, in the pandemic, how people of color have been disproportionately impacted, and yet not prioritized in the solutions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.”
— Betial Asmerom
Black medical students at UC San Diego did not mince their words. In a publicly published letter, they wrote that they were “tired of asking our institutions to be better for us and for society.” They called for a commitment from both the university and the health system to become anti-racist institutions.
Leadership heard the concerns, fears and worries of not just students, but the echoing words of faculty and staff. They identified four immediate actions to foster an environment supportive of Black and underrepresented minorities in medicine.
Among the steps was mandating an anti-racism training program; implementing a new policy to address racism and discrimination from patients and visitors at UC San Diego Health hospitals and clinics; hiring leaders in equity, diversity and inclusion for UC San Diego Health Sciences and the health system; and the creation of an Anti-Racism Task Force.
Because of her leadership roles in regional and national student organizations and her commitment to equity, UC San Diego Health CEO Patricia Maysent hired Asmerom as a project consultant on anti-racism initiatives for the health system.
Among Asmerom’s proudest achievements as a consultant is her role on the COVID-19 vaccine committee.
UC San Diego Health collaborated with community-based organizations to deploy mobile vaccine clinics into the San Diego communities most impacted by COVID-19 in order to reach more patients more effectively, and help ease barriers, such as access, lack of transportation to vaccine appointment sites and distrust in health care providers outside of local communities.
“Being able to help with equitable vaccine distribution, and doing it in a way that intentionally centers on the needs of minoritized communities, represents the kind of care I want to provide as a physician, and I get to do it while still in medical school. I see the impact on communities that look like me. I see the gratitude on their faces. I get to use these platforms to ensure that my community is taken care of in a meaningful way,” said Asmerom.
“I hope that this momentum is not lost, that we continue to center equity and talk about racism in a really honest and authentic way so that we continue to make strides toward making UC San Diego, the medical school, the health system and the country a more equitable place for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other minoritized groups. We cannot fall back into a pattern of ignoring the people who are the most marginalized and hurt by inequitable systems.”