Third-year medical student Claire Rhee decided to take a stand on issues of social justice long before she chose to pursue a career in medicine.
When she was still in high school in New Jersey, Rhee became fascinated with the many ways that social context, income level and surroundings can influence a person’s health.
After arriving at medical school at Stanford, she became increasingly involved in promoting diversity and inclusion, which led her to serve last year as co-chair of the Stanford University Minority Medical Alliance. SUMMA represents and promotes awareness of issues facing a number of minority groups, including African Americans, Latinx, Asian-Pacific Americans, Muslims, people from indigenous backgrounds, people who identify as LBGTQ+, and people with disabilities or chronic illness.
I caught up with Rhee to discuss her time with SUMMA, diversity and inclusion in health care, and what it means to be an ally.
Why did you get involved in SUMMA?
Being an Asian American, straight-passing woman, I can engage in these communities without going out into the world and facing a lot of discrimination that others face. Allyship was always something that was a little bit scary to me, because I was worried that I would do something wrong. But at Stanford our community is small enough — and you have enough touchpoints with everyone — that there isn’t that sense of: you send out an email that says something insensitive and you get flamed by 500 people on Twitter or something. I could learn and be corrected and approach this with humility, but also feel like I was being cared for at the same time.
What is something you’re proud of from your time as a SUMMA leader?
I am so excited about the incoming medical student class. It is the most diverse incoming class in Stanford Medicine history, and so many of them expressed interest in social determinants of health and social justice in general.
I’ve been involved in the admissions process and in recruitment since my first year of medical school, and it has been one of our priorities at SUMMA to make our already small class sizes as diverse as possible. This year’s success was a cumulative effort by the student leaders who planned interview days and revisit weekend, by the office of admissions and the financial aid office who worked with the students to make it possible for them to come here, and by our SUMMA organizations, who show these students the strength of our communities.
Why is it important to increase diversity and inclusion in the health professions?
There’s a ton of data that shows that patients feel a lot more comfortable if they’re treated by a doctor who they think understands their experience. And sometimes that boils down to identity.
I know that I have patients — I have family members — who will only see doctors who speak their language, which I completely understand. Or who will, if they have the freedom of choice, only see doctors who are of the same ethnicity as them. I think that’s within the patient’s right to decide, to an extent. I think it offers a better space for providing culturally humble care. And when we start having more providers that look like our patient demographic, then we will likely see better health care outcomes in the health care system.
Sometimes doctors or students are sort of told to “stay in our lanes.” In other words, not to speak out on social issues. Why is it important that we speak out?
Because none of us operates in a vacuum.
The reason I came into medicine was because of the human side of things. That’s what makes it interesting. What makes it complicated. And what gives value to this profession. I think to ignore the fact that we all live in a society that affects our health is misguided.
What advice do you have for people who want to be allies, but don’t know how?
It’s not going to be easy. A lot of us have really deeply embedded societal norms and different levels of self-awareness of those norms. But everyone in the SUMMA community is aware that people come here with the intention to learn.
We all have the capacity to learn. The hard thing is when that cognitive part comes at odds with the emotional part of being told you did something wrong at some point. I think, as high achievers, that’s especially difficult to reckon with. But if you come at it from a place of humility — and understand that the pain that some of these communities face day-to day is so much larger than you being told you’re wrong — it helps. It at least helps put me in the right headspace, which means putting my ego on the back burner.
Photo courtesy of Claire Rhee
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