His Mother’s Son:
Redefining Inclusion With Leo Morales

“Diversity and all the issues related to culture need to be front and center and part of everything our organization does,” says Leo Morales, M.D. ’90, Ph.D., MPH, UW Medicine’s chief diversity officer.

When her son, Leo, went to California for residency, Gladys Romero went to work for the U.S. Census. Her goal was to encourage Latino participation, and she got to know people — a lot of people in the state and region. “Many times when I go into a community, I’m introduced as my mother’s son,” says Leo Morales, M.D. ’90, Ph.D., MPH, with a laugh. “It’s a more relevant introduction than any title I have.”

A little over a year ago, Morales assumed several titles at UW Medicine, including chief diversity officer, director of the Center for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and co-director of the Latino Center for Health. Morales, who had been conducting health disparities research for two decades, first at UCLA then at the Group Health Research Institute, wanted a change of focus. “When Dr. Ramsey offered me the opportunity for a leadership position addressing diversity at the UW…it offered a way to move closer to having an immediate impact,” he says.

Communication, trust, understanding: these make up the basis of a good patient-physician relationship. But they can be hard to achieve, especially if a patient and her physician speak a different language or have different cultural perspectives. Why is this especially important in the 21st century? The U.S. is changing. According to a press release issued by the U.S. Census in June 2015, millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) represent one-quarter of the population, and 44.2 percent of them are part of a minority race or ethnic group. And when the Census is extended to children age 5 and under, that number climbs to 50.2 percent. By 2050, America will have no clear “majority” race/ethnic group.

The corollary is simple: creating a diverse workforce of doctors — for an increasingly diverse patient population — is good medicine. That’s why UW Medicine hired Morales: to figure out how to recruit, retain and advance the careers of more students, trainees and faculty who will diversify that workforce. How do Morales and his colleagues intend to help the UW School of Medicine meet this challenge? By:

Attracting more medical students from diverse backgrounds from our own region. “We need to think more about local colleges and universities,” Morales says. The UW’s Bothell and Tacoma campuses, for instance, and tribal colleges and community colleges.

Connecting with communities. By connecting with rural and urban communities, the School can develop more robust pipelines to connect students to the health professions where they are needed.

Building the pipeline. In September 2015, the schools of medicine and dentistry at the UW received a grant totaling nearly $2 million to help mentor UW undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Developing a more diverse faculty pool. Many of the School’s residents become faculty, so programming that pulls in and supports diverse residents is key.

Refining recruitment. Faculty are helping to develop and disseminate best practices that help the School recruit diverse candidates during faculty job searches.

Morales is optimistic about creating a more diverse and inclusive school — in part because of the caliber of faculty and students he’s met over the past year.

“My impression is that people want this work to happen but don’t always know how to make it happen,” he says. With the programs described above, he and his colleagues intend to lead the way.

“It’s a large transition, but it’s what’s needed,” Morales says. “Hopefully, over time, we’ll make a difference.”

Want to join the conversation about diversity and inclusion? Visit mycedi.org.

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