Innovative Healthcare Leadership: Dr. Lauree Thomas’ Impact

We’re shining the ProjectIMPACT Spotlight on Lauree Thomas, MD, an individual who is making a positive impact in healthcare by advocating for minority student success in medicine. Dr. Thomas is interviewed by Chinenye Onejeme, a 3rd-year medical student at The University of Texas Medical Branch and a VisualDx Student Advisory Board member.


Dr. Thomas: I would describe it as a very wonderful and challenging one. I was a first-generation college graduate who grew up in rural Mississippi without any positive role models. I decided at a very early age that I wanted to become a physician, and coming from a family of 12 siblings and also one where neither of my parents ever graduated from high school, I knew I had to work extremely hard to achieve my goal.

Although challenging, my journey has also been very rewarding because I have been able to reach back and help and motivate others to accomplish their dreams and goals, which has been the mainstay of my career development and career participation.

I am originally from Natchez, Mississippi and by the grace of God, I received scholarships to Marquette University and Harvard summer programs. I went to medical school at the University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine and Public Health. I trained in Internal Medicine and Geriatrics in Milwaukee and practiced medicine for about seven years, until the Dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), the late, great Dr. Richard “Buz” Cooper, recruited me to join the Dean’s office.

Transitioning from clinical practice to the administrative side of medicine taught me a great deal. I had to quickly learn how to write grants, understand academic policies, recruit students and ensure they graduated from medical school. The productivity of students graduating confirmed that transitioning to this role was the right decision. When I first went to MCW, there were only 4 African Americans in a graduating class of 200. When I left 10 years later, there were 27 minority students in the graduating class, some of whom included MD/PhD students. To witness these students succeed—some of whom I still keep in contact with to this very day—and to see their continued interest in healthcare disparities has been absolutely phenomenal.

Dr. Lauree Thomas

Moreover, I have been here at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) for the past 22 years and it has been extremely gratifying to help recruit and train those students who are underrepresented in medicine. With the help of committed deans such as Dr. Lemon and Dr. Anderson earlier in my career, I was able to implement numerous programs, write tons of grants, and graduate about 44 African American and about 34 Hispanic medical students in one of those years. I wrote grants totaling $22.4 million over a 10-year period, which included the Hispanic Center of Excellence (HCOE), the Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) program, NIH Research programs, and the National Research Forum.

My goal was to enhance minority students’ applications, secure scholarships, and develop mentoring and tutoring programs to ensure their successful graduation from medical school. With my input and guidance from about 2005-2010, African American students at UTMB scored 100% on their Step 1; Hispanic students here at that time frame averaged about 96%, which was incredible to witness. So I knew it was possible for minority students to achieve their goals.

Can you describe your current job and your favorite aspects of your current position?

Dr. Thomas: I would say my position is currently in a state of transition because of the rule that the Texas governor has mandated requesting the removal of diversity, equity, and inclusion officers and offices. Therefore, UTMB is in the process of reconstruction so that those activities can continue to enhance a sense of inclusivity, belonging, and a nurturing environment especially for minority students.

What has been your experience working in an academic and medical setting as a woman of color?

Dr. Thomas: My experience has been very challenging but I have been very, very fortunate since the day I came to Galveston. I was brought here by Dr. Stanley Lemon who instantly informed me that UTMB was a haven for African American and other minority students. Initially, I did not believe him. He informed me that at the time UTMB had a 15%-20% of enrollment of minority students, and behold I discovered that this was true. So, I was fortunate to work with wonderful deans who were committed to enhancing opportunities for minority students to enter and graduate from UTMB.

From the commitment of Dr. Lemon to Dr. Anderson and Dr. Parisi, I was encouraged to work hard to help UTMB achieve its goals of diversity and thus, minority recruitment. I had a wonderful time working under their direction and I have had an immense amount of support in my career. Most recently, it was Dr. Mouton who created the UTMB DEI office and asked me to serve as the associate dean, which has been an enlightening experience. I have helped many students schedule speakers, participate and engage in career development activities, and have also encouraged them to optimize their maximum potential. So far, it has been an excellent opportunity, and one I would do again at the drop of a coin if the opportunity presented itself.

What do think are the biggest challenges in reducing bias in healthcare?

Dr. Thomas: Many, many biases exist and reducing them is quite challenging. Just looking at the national movement of the country; the nation is clearly divided. Healthcare is even more difficult because African Americans, for example, make up approximately13.5% of the population but less than 5% of the total number of physicians nationwide. So, there is a tremendous disparity in terms of those who are practicing medicine.

In terms of cultural biases, for all ethnic groups, there is an inherent cultural bias in terms of patients being able to receive adequate healthcare. We know that this is really a problem for African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics. So, the cultural bias that exists right now is made even more difficult because of the social, medical, and economic silos that are very prevalent.

When you practice medicine, you have to understand the cultural norms of an individual to adequately treat them well. If you have never treated an African American patient and you do not understand their communities or healthcare problems, that makes it more difficult for you to practice medicine in the way it was intended for those individuals.

The same thing goes if you took me and placed me on a Native American or indigenous people reservation. If I know very little about their culture or health practices, I would be somewhat ineffective compared to someone who grew up in that environment and understood the health practices and health problems you will encounter in that particular population.

In the African American culture, our diet, culture, need for healthcare, and our approaches to problem solving may be different from mainstream America, so cultural competency is critically important.

As a physician, you must have the interest, the motivation, and the training to deal with different ethnicities. Without this exposure, it will be more of a challenge to adequately treat these patients.

What are you currently working on that addresses healthcare equity?

Dr. Thomas: Because my job is administrative, I am not directly involved in the delivery of healthcare. However, I can tell you that I give lectures regarding healthcare inequality, and provide mentorship and encouragement to students from different backgrounds to pursue the field of medicine. Last year, I spoke on health equity and disparity at UTMB’s Discover Medicine, and I co-presented with Dr. Angelica Robinson, a UTMB radiologist, who shared her insights with breast cancer imaging, which illustrated the real, significant problem with African American women getting mammograms.

Additionally, I recruited and trained Dr. Norma Perez, who continues a phenomenal amount of work in the Hispanic Center of Excellence here at UTMB. As an administrator, my role involves the education and training of students of color and creating opportunities for those students to enter and graduate from medical school.

What or who inspires you?

Dr. Thomas: Dr. Arnold Mitchem, who was the founding director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University. He created the opportunity for me to pursue my undergraduate education at Marquette, and he was extremely encouraging because at the time I was unsure if I would get into medical school. He said to me, “There are no guarantees in life, but you must pursue your dream and if you have the ability, you must pursue medicine.” At the time, I was pursuing a degree in Medical Technology because I did not know if I would get into medical school. He was the main source of inspiration in the formative years of my education.

Additionally, the people I have met along the way including Dr. Richard Cooper, who created the opportunity for me to become the assistant dean for minority students at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr. Stanley Lemon who brought me to UTMB, and Dr. Garland Anderson, who gave a tremendous amount of support to develop pipeline programs for minority students, write grants, secure scholarship support, enhance board passage rates, and develop career guidance programs.

UTMB has been and continues to be deeply committed to providing excellent opportunities for minority students who are interested in serving their communities. I am so very proud of the number of African American and Hispanic students we have graduated from medical school over the years of my career.

Do you have any advice for underrepresented minority pre-medical and medical students navigating through this medical journey?

Dr. Thomas: The first thing is to be committed to the field of medicine. You have to want this with your heart, mind, body, and soul. You have to be highly motivated and dedicated to attaining your maximum potential. You must appreciate the fact that you are intelligent and that you can do the work that is at hand. Find a mentor who can show you the way.

Get excellent grades, do your best to perform well on the MCAT, and never accept no as a final decision in terms of your career choice. If you believe it, and you see it, then most assuredly, you can achieve it. All you have to do is look around you and find similar minds who are devoted to helping one achieve their goals.

I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement. My grandmother worked for the grand dragon of the KKK and could not wait to hustle me out of Mississippi to Milwaukee where I could continue my education out of harm’s way because I was a very outspoken activist. I am a living prime example of someone who had no connections to medicine whatsoever, but who made it. It is possible, believe me.

My true goal is to encourage students and to ensure that they know they can do this work. It is difficult, it is not easy. If so, everyone will be a physician.

With your God-given talent, work ethic and abilities, you can do it as long as you stay motivated and persevere. Keep your strengths, know thyself, accept the truthfulness as it is, and pursue your dream. It is possible!

What advice would you give to medical students or residents interested in addressing healthcare disparities?

Dr. Thomas: Find a mentor who is in your field of interest and do as much research about your area of interest as you possibly can.

Commit and devote yourself to your career of choice. Those of us who have been successful in this field have a bell cry of wanting and being motivated to change.

Change is an inevitability that we all must face, and in terms of healthcare equity and health disparities, that is hard work. You have to be willing to commit yourself to this cause and be willing to make a significant change in the field.

Try to connect with individuals who can guide you to make change, collaborate with others, find out what the greatest need is and stay devoted to making a change in that area.

How do you pledge to make an impact to improve health equity?

Dr. Thomas: By training as many physicians of color as possible. For those who are truly called to the profession of medicine, we have to create opportunities for these individuals to move forward, change the landscape, and save lives. It is critically important to continue to develop and maintain pipelines that will create these opportunities for students to become enlightened about the possibility of going into medicine and other healthcare fields.

Author’s note: Thank you so much to Dr. Thomas for sharing her experiences and insights, and for all the differences she has made and is continuing to make. It has truly been a pleasure learning from and sharing space with you today for a much-needed conversation.

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