We’re shining the ProjectIMPACT Spotlight on Claudia Hernandez, MD, an individual who is making a positive impact in healthcare by reducing racial bias in medicine. Dr. Hernandez is interviewed by Kayla Clark, a student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and a VisualDx Student Advisory Board member.
Please describe your job and your favorite aspects of your current position:
I am an associate professor of dermatology at Rush University Medical Center, where I also serve as the Dermatology Residency program director. I have six residents, two in each year. As a program director, annually I formulate the academic program, and I work very hard to ensure that our curriculum is up to date with the latest developments in dermatology. My favorite thing about being a program director is working with the residents. Sometimes as a more senior attending one can get into a rut and lose one’s enthusiasm; however, being surrounded by the young and enthusiastic residents is so helpful for me because their energy is infectious! I also have the privilege of working for JAMA Dermatology as a section editor. I review the observations, letters to the editor, and letters in reply. My favorite aspect of this position is reading the new submissions—this absolutely enriches my education every day.
What do you see are the biggest challenges in reducing bias in healthcare?
I think it is very difficult for people to point out the internal biases that they may have. We should all use every opportunity to speak out against racism and acknowledge that we are each a work in progress. Ultimately, I think the progress starts with the individual.
What are you currently working on that addresses healthcare equity?
As a program director, in addition to my projects I get the privilege of mentoring and coaching the next generation of doctors to help decrease healthcare disparities. Right now, two of my residents are working on a quality improvement (QI) project that focuses on assisting patients with getting their prescriptions at affordable rates. QI projects are required projects that are not meant to be published; instead they are intended to make an internal impact at our program. I was impressed that they chose this topic because they could have chosen anything. Despite this, they are undertaking a project that will help address healthcare equity.
Furthermore, I have been selected to be a faculty member for the Rush Medical School health equity and social justice course. I will be teaching a course about unconscious bias to the M3 students. This course will focus on the full spectrum of bias. I think it is important to acknowledge that in addition to racial and ethnic inequalities, there are gender inequalities, religious biases, LGBTQIA biases, and biases due to speaking different languages, to name a few. Also, in the COVID era, anti-Asian bias is at an all-time high. Therefore, my course will focus on all of these things, because although we tend to focus on racial-related inequalities, there are many things that we need to work on.
What or who inspires you?
I would say that Dr. June Robinson is the first person that inspired me. She is a female MOHS surgeon and she trained in a surgical subspecialty of dermatology during a time when MOHS surgeons were a rarity. She was also a female dermatology faculty member, performed NIH-funded research, was a prolific writer, and eventually became the editor of a major dermatologic journal. It is incredible to me that she was able to achieve so much at a time when dermatology was primarily a male-dominated field. I am also inspired by Dr. Ruth Freinkel–she was the first editor of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. She also trained 40 years ago when it was difficult for women to achieve accomplishments such as this.
What advice would you give to students or residents interested in addressing healthcare disparities?
I think the first thing that medical students should do is try to become the best doctor that they can be. Earning an MD can open up so many different avenues, such as doing research or seeing patients clinically. However, as a student, you want to always place yourself in a position where you get to make those decisions for yourself and not where these decisions are being made for you. Therefore, your foundation needs to be solid.
It is also important to acknowledge that you do not necessarily have to start as a medical student. However, if you would like to get started as a student, being a keen observer of your surroundings in the hospital will probably show a lot of societal issues that are present. This can help students think of ways to contribute, similar to how my residents created a QI project based on observing that many patients in our clinic could not afford their prescriptions. Also, mentorship is very important, because it is very difficult to get started. Therefore, if you find an attending who is willing to mentor you through a project then this is a great start.
How do you pledge to make an impact to improve health equity?
I pledge to make an impact by continuing to mentor medical students. I realize that I will not be around forever, and I hope to one day have the good fortune of growing old. Therefore, I want to help prepare the next generation of researchers to continue this work. Also, whenever an article comes across my desk as an editor, I feel that I have the responsibility to advocate for some of the lesser-known conditions and to not discount some smaller projects that deal with health disparities. I also will remain open minded and continually do my due diligence to assess where I am. When I witness anything problematic, I will be vocal about the issue and have a zero-tolerance policy for injustice. I pledge to always uphold these standards in my day-to-day interactions in the clinic with patients and colleagues.