Yancy Makes Impassioned Plea for Diversity and Inclusion

In a thought-provoking and inspiring talk at Sunday afternoon’s opening session, Clyde W. Yancy, MD, emphasized the need for diversity and inclusion within the medical profession as a way to improve health outcomes.

Dr. Yancy, vice dean for diversity and inclusion and chief of the Division of Cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, delivered the inaugural Vivien T. Thomas Lecture, established to honor a man who helped usher in a new era in cardiothoracic surgery during a polarizing time in the United States.

Thomas was a black laboratory supervisor who worked with famed physician Alfred Blalock, MD, at Vanderbilt University in the 1940s. When Johns Hopkins recruited Dr. Blalock, he refused to move unless Thomas accompanied him as a “package deal.” Despite Thomas’s integral role in Blalock’s pioneering work in shock, vascular, and cardiac surgery, he was hired and paid as a janitor and was not allowed to use the main entrance to Johns Hopkins. He was not mentioned as a coauthor in scientific publications and was not included in group photos of trained physicians. Thomas’s life was beset by discrimination, segregation, and bias, said Dr. Yancy. “But was it?” he asked.

Before answering that question, Dr. Yancy explored the current state of diversity and inclusion in the United States. The demographics of the country are changing, and there is no longer a majority population. “This is an excellent opportunity to make an argument for inclusion,” he said.

He noted that the absence of a diverse workforce in medicine contributes in part to disparate disease outcomes, pointing to the low percentage of transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedures performed in black patients as an example. “When we make decisions, we bring certain templates of thoughts to the table,” he said.

Dr. Yancy also explained the influence of implicit bias—which he described as a tendency or inclination that results in judgment without question. “Implicit bias shapes our decisions and modifies our professional interactions,” said Dr. Yancy. “We all must be willing to think unconventionally and check our assumptions at the door.”

Bias can be overcome with awareness, allyship, and sponsorship. Dr. Yancy noted that everyone can be an ally. “Allyship is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people. It is an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves while building confidence in others,” he said.

Sponsorship is the core attribute of allyship. Whereas a mentor can advise and provide perspective on another’s role, career, and situation, a sponsor is the person who can make someone’s potential career a reality, said Dr. Yancy. “A sponsor believes in you. Sponsors offer serious seniority, power, and influence.”

Dr. Yancy came full circle at the end of his lecture by answering the question he posed earlier about Vivien Thomas. Rather than telling a story about segregation, discrimination, and bias, said Dr. Yancy, Thomas’s story “is about diversity and inclusion; it is about allyship; it is about sponsorship.”