How Education and Research Can Help Fix Health Care Inequity

Feb. 23, 2021

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease has disproportionately affected people based on race and ethnicity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that African Americans, non-Hispanic people are dying at nearly twice the rate and are being hospitalized at almost three times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people.

There also is growing concern about greater hesitancy among African Americans adults regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. In December, the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, an ongoing research project tracking the public’s attitudes and experiences with COVID-19 vaccinations, found that 35% of African American adults said they “definitely or probably would not get vaccinated,” compared to 26% of white respondents who expressed the same degree of hesitancy.

Patricia Harrison-Monroe, PhD, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry and a Diversity Champion, and Francisco Moreno, MD, professor of psychiatry and University of Arizona Health Sciences Associate Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, are both deeply involved in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at UArizona. Here, they discuss the reasons behind health care inequities, and how UArizona Health Sciences and the Colleges of Medicine’s diversity and inclusion efforts are establishing avenues to create equity in medicine.

How has race affected medical care?

Dr. Harrison-Monroe: One the most distressing revelations to come out of this pandemic is the confirmation of what was already known – that in the United States, historically marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to appropriate health care, resulting in substantially higher morbidity and mortality.  

When your health is already compromised, higher infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are the inevitable result. Coupled with distrust in the health care system and a reluctance to be vaccinated based on innumerable examples of ethical and medical abuses, African Americans are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of this virus.

Students walking together

Diverse learning environments help students improve active thinking, intellectual engagement, social skills, empathy, and racial understanding — all critical components to a health provider's education.

What are some ways the health care field needs to evolve when it comes to addressing the concerns of bias in access and care?

Dr. Moreno: There are multiple approaches that must be taken into consideration, including:

  • Increasing the diversity of the workforce
  • Improving the cultural proficiency of all providers and programs by improving curricular content reflective of the overall population and creating training experiences with communities and providers that serve the most disadvantaged.
  • Increasing the amount of research that addresses social determinants of health and demographic variables while ensuring a more diverse research participation.  

Dr. Harrison-Monroe: It is also imperative that providers acknowledge their own biases and learn to engage with communities of color in a proactive and antiracist manner, recognizing the legacy of medical mistreatment shaping their patients’ perceptions of the care they should expect.   

How is UArizona Health Sciences addressing racial disparities in medical and mental healthcare?

Dr. Moreno: The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion exists to collaborate with its member colleges and centers to support several programs that promote diversity of the health profession’s workforce by identifying, supporting and preparing students who come from underrepresented groups.


The FRONTERA Summer Internship Program (Focusing Research on the Border Area), provides undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to prepare for medical school with a hands-on research experience and an increased understanding of public health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

There are programs for students in middle school (Pharm Camp) and high school (MedStart), as well as a college transition program (BRIDGE) and an undergraduate research program (Frontera) at the university.  Additionally, learning services and mental health wellness services are available to students and faculty.

Other programs expand the educational and research opportunities to address the service needs of disadvantaged communities and promote health equity. These include: Graduate Medical Education Health Disparities Track, Medical Spanish Bilingual Training, Rural Health Professions Programs, Commitment to Underserved Student Track Program, Global Health in Low and Middle Income Countries, and collaborations with the Arizona Area Health Education Centers.

Dr. Harrison-Monroe: Within the College of Medicine – Tucson (COM-T), multiple initiatives have brought a very deliberate spotlight on the need for change. These include a holistic medical school admissions process to encourage students who are underrepresented in medicine to consider becoming physicians, and a focus on implicit bias, which may impact the recruitment and selection process of residents, fellows and faculty.

Additionally, programs such as the Pre-Medical Admissions Pathway help students experiencing unique or greater than average challenges prepare to become competitive medical school applicants.

Under the leadership the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, multiple committees help faculty, students, residents, fellow, and staff remain focused on pursuing Antiracism in Medicine.

How does cultural competency reduce discrimination and how is it integrated into medical student, resident, and fellow training?

Dr. Harrison-Monroe: Being part of a diverse group of students and practitioners that value and integrate everyone's perspectives and experiences improves everyone’s ability to serve and appreciation for the unique needs of all patients and communities. Becoming aware of our unconscious bias and how it influences our behaviors allows us to move toward more egalitarian, conscious and intentional practices.

Doctor looking at x-ray with patient

Increasing diversity in health care also makes it more accessible to underserved patients—African American, Hispanic, and Native American physicians are much more likely to work in underserved communities than their white counterparts.

Visit and to learn more about ongoing initiatives, programs, and learning opportunities.

About the Author

Patricia Harrison-Monroe, PhD, is the Department of Psychiatry’s Vice Chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since 2005, Dr. Harrison-Monroe has been a mainstay with the Psychiatry Department, serving as a faculty member, clinical supervisor, advocate, and designer of some of the Department’s most innovative programs. These include the Whole Health Clinic and the Early Psychosis Intervention Center, where she served as the Director until Feb 1, 2021.  Dr. Harrison-Monroe has been recognized nationally and locally for her work in traditionally underserved communities.

About the Author

Francisco Moreno, MD, is a Professor of Psychiatry who serves in a variety of roles, including: Associate Vice President at the University of Arizona Health Science, leading the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; Senior Investigator and Engagement Lead with the NIH-Precision Medicine Initiative’s grant “All of Us Research Program”; Principal Investigator of the Arizona Health Career Opportunity Program from DHHS-Health Resources and Services Administration grant “Arizona HOPE” which works to support the competitiveness of a diverse pipeline of students for health professions in our state; Multiple Principal Investigator of an NIH-NHLBI grant to enhance the research skill and career advancement of early-career faculty from diverse backgrounds who seek to improve health equity.