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Disparities and Diversity
Brian Gibbs will put his social-change expertise to work in transforming Hopkins Medicine’s culture.

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  Much of the diversity mission’s success depends on connecting with the community, says Gibbs.

Johns Hopkins Medicine’s mission to build a more diverse and inclusive culture got a boost in January, when Brian Gibbs became the first associate dean for diversity and cultural competence. Gibbs arrived from Harvard University, where—among other things—he served as director of the Program to Eliminate Health Disparities. Part of Harvard’s school of public health, the program works with community-based organizations, elected officials, health centers, activists, educators, schools and youth service programs to tackle factors that contribute to poor health outcomes in minority communities.

Gibbs now directs his attention to realizing the Johns Hopkins Medicine Diversity and Inclusion Vision 2020 Plan, which sets concrete goals for recruitment and retention, cultural competency in patient care, and eliminating disparities in quality of care and outcomes here. For instance, the plan calls for 20 percent of the next 200 medical and administrative leaders to be from underrepresented minorities and having 75 percent of community residents view Hopkins Medicine as a “trusted partner” by the year 2020. (Visit www.hopkinsmedicine.org/diversity/about_diversity/strategic_plan.html for details.)

What do you think about the Vision 2020 goals?
They’re a good start. Having goals gives us an opportunity to measure where we are in our progression. We can use them to create a culture in which departments and programs are trying to achieve greater diversity in different ways, and individuals are having conversations about how well they are faring.

Although measuring against these goals is good, Vision 2020 isn’t the end in itself. It’s what happens in the time between setting goals and reaching them that’s important—those interactions where people are making an effort to be more inclusive, being more open and receptive and willing to confront biases. That’s what will create a different culture for the institution as a whole.

What got you involved in the work of health disparities?
Within the first week of classes in my occupational therapy program, the instructor asked me why I was there. The class was majority white and female, and so my being a double minority must have seemed quite peculiar. The question totally caught me off guard, and it not only made me more aware of my differences, but it also made me think critically. Why was I there? Then it dawned on me: because the world is going to be much more diverse. As a practitioner I would be able to reach a community that I was familiar with, and I would be conscious of differences that many of my classmates wouldn’t.

How did you decide to tackle these issues on a larger scale?
When I went into the community to work as an occupational therapist with patients and their families, I saw many health problems that were preventable, in terms of chronic disease or the burden of disease, that were disproportionately present in communities of color. For example, if you get a doctor’s instructions to lower your cholesterol and change the way you’re eating, but you either can’t afford or don’t have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, there’s a disconnect between your intentions and your capacity. Later, I decided I’d like to try to make a difference on a population basis. 

What’s an example of the social change that you’ve worked to create?
I led Cherishing Our Hearts and Souls, a coalition of 200 organizations in Roxbury, Mass., that is working with both health care providers and community leaders to address the issue of community literacy around cancer center trials. Some people don’t want to get involved in clinical trials because they fear they’ll be treated as a guinea pig, or they want to make sure that they’re getting real treatment rather than a sugar pill. To improve their understanding, we trained community leaders about the benefits of participating in studies, and they in turn train other residents. We conducted many workshops—be it in churches, community recreation centers or community health centers—where community members’ questions are posed and answered. We also trained cancer clinical trial investigators about some of the social injustices and disparities that occur, often as a result of the minorities’ encounters in a clinical environment.

What made the Hopkins job attractive to you?
This is an opportunity to take a leadership role and help transform an institution. Hopkins is a place that’s ready for that transformation. This is also a good time for me to apply my practical experience and theoretical knowledge about social change and social transformation. That’s where we have to go—not only changing individuals’ awareness, but awakening an institution and inspiring a sea change. I think that has already started to happen. 


— Interview by Jamie Manfuso

 

 

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