Restoring humanity to health care

Equity, compassion are key themes at UCLA Health’s 4th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Justice Symposium
Dr. Medell Briggs Malonson, on stage, left, moderates a panel discussion with Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, an assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and Derek Steele, executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute.
Dr. Medell Briggs Malonson, left, moderates a panel discussion with Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, an assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and Derek Steele, executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Justice Symposium. (Photo by John McCoy)
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What does justice have to do with health care? And where do compassion and humanity fit in?

These were the central questions explored at the fourth annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Justice Symposium, held Friday, Jan. 19 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and over Zoom.

Moderated by Medell Briggs-Malonson, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician and chief of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for UCLA Health, the hourlong symposium centered on the importance of community-driven, equity-based approaches to addressing health disparities and the systemic factors that impede progress.

“Health equity is one of the stepping stones on the path to justice,” Dr. Briggs-Malonson said.

Yet systemic issues, such as lack of access to health care and healthy foods in low-income areas and communities of color, stand in the way of this justice, noted panelist Derek Steele, executive director of the Inglewood-based Social Justice Learning Institute.

Real justice requires “removing the barriers to people living whole, free lives,” Steele said. “So that is making sure that people have fair wages and fair jobs. That’s also making sure that people have access to health care. That’s also making sure that people have access to information … quality housing and quality education.”

Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, an assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, speaks during UCLA Health’s 4th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Justice Symposium.
Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, speaks during UCLA Health’s 4th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Justice Symposium. (Photo by John McCoy).

The challenges can feel so overwhelming as to seem insurmountable, but there’s a lot individuals can do to further the cause of justice and equity in health care, the panelists said.

“Something as simple as your encounter with a patient could make vast differences,” said Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, an assistant professor at L.A.’s Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

A moment of intention — to be compassionate, to see the person in front of you as a unique, complex and worthy human being — can be a catalyst for great change in an individual’s life, Steele added.

“Justice is not an arrival. Justice is a constant commitment.”

CYNTHIA GONZALEZ, Ph.D

The panelists acknowledged, however, that institutional and systemic pressures can get in the way. 

Health care workers are generally compassionate people, Dr. Briggs-Malonson said, but “oftentimes we can become distracted.”

“We actually start stepping away from being more human-centered and family-centered and community-centered when we’re distracted,” she said.

When that happens, health care providers may forget to ask patients to share more about themselves and their lives or collaborate on how they can work together to improve their health.

“We have to be thoughtful about what’s pushing and what’s driving us, and really show that love and those acts of kindness for the person in front of us,” Dr. Briggs-Malonson said. “Every single one of us can do that.”

Those kinds of actions can spur institutional change, Steele said: “If we all have that mentality of being very intentional about the randomness we’re placing in people’s lives, and doing it with that mentality of actually invoking a significant change for the better, we’re making society better in that way. … Leadership is a decision, not a position.”

Creating health equity is both a top-down and bottom-up endeavor. It demands institutional commitment and community engagement. Whether between doctor and patient or clinic and community, these encounters are most effective when they’re bidirectional, Dr. Gonzalez said: “The encounter is about learning from each other and building that team.”

Institutionally, UCLA Health belongs to a consortium of health care systems, the Healthcare Anchor Network, committed to addressing social inequities that lead to poor health outcomes. Additionally, UCLA Health aims to reduce health disparities by investing in under-resourced communities and promoting inclusive hiring practices. 

Working toward equity and justice requires ongoing effort, Dr. Gonzalez said.

“Justice is not an arrival,” she said. “Justice is a constant commitment.”

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