Summer Reading Starts Conversation

Before they even arrived in Chapel Hill, this year’s class of first-year medical students had an assignment.

Summer Reading Starts Conversation click to enlarge Patrick O'Shea and Kyle Roedersheimer. Photo by Brian Strickland

By Jamie Williams,

Spearheaded by Whitehead Society co-presidents Kyle Roedersheimer and Patrick O’Shea, the incoming class of students participated in a summer reading initiative designed to foster self-reflection and also prompt some honest conversation.

The students read Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, psychologists based at Harvard and the University of Washington, respectively.

According to the authors, “Blindspot” is a metaphor to capture that portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. The authors use it to ask about the extent to which characteristics like age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, or nationality – without our awareness or conscious control – shape our likes and dislikes, our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.

Roedersheimer said they chose this particular book because of its potential impact on student’s thinking throughout their medical school experience.

“We wanted to foster discussion about the biases people possess towards others from different races or social classes that will hopefully produce lessons that can be carried through all four years – especially in the clinical years,” Roedersheimer said.

O’Shea said that while they knew some conversations may be tough, it was important to make an early impact.

“We really wanted to have a hook for students who were excited about having these conversations, but, more so for those who were not,” O’Shea said. “We have so many students coming from different backgrounds and so by getting out front, we are hoping to make clear that this is something we value, something that is worthy of your time, and something that will be beneficial in the long run.”

Roedersheimer and O’Shea said that many of the conversations that led to this initiative were launched during their time in Teach for America, where they both taught science. Roedersheimer said their training focused on how implicit biases can affect interactions with students in the classroom.

Now, he said he and O’Shea recognized the value those conversations could bring to medical training.

They just weren’t sure how to incorporate them naturally.

Roedersheimer, who completed his third-year at Carolinas Medical Center as part of UNC School of Medicine’s Charlotte Program, said that while there he attended a diversity awareness conference that featured one of Blindspot’s authors as a guest speaker.

“I immediately called Pat and said that this book was something we should look into and with his support it just grew from there,” Roedersheimer said.

The first step was for both Roedersheimer and O’Shea to sit down and give the book a close reading, studying it like they would any medical text.

“I would describe the book as appropriately academic,” O’Shea said. “It is incredibly well researched and well thought out. For me, the title itself is very non-threatening. These conversations can occasionally be threatening or accusatory and we thought this book established a way to dive in and have these conversations more openly.”

O’Shea and Roedersheimer then pitched the idea to Julie Byerley, MD, MPH, vice dean for education. They said she was immediately receptive and was able to help get buy in from other faculty members.

Then the books were distributed to the incoming students. While the students were busy reading, O’Shea, Roedersheimer and others formulated a plan to facilitate small group discussions when the class of 2019 arrived on campus.

“We decided to do a large group session and then – due to the sensitivity of the material – we thought it would be beneficial to host small group discussions,” O’Shea said.

They asked students in their clinical years to come in and facilitate those smaller group discussions, sharing experiences they have had dealing with patients and offering guidance on how implicit biases can affect work in the clinic.

“Even if the conversations weren’t perfect, the fact that we were recognizing the value of discussing this topic was important to a lot of people,” Roedersheimer said.

Fourth-year student, Courtney Lee, the Whitehead Society’s vice president of diversity and campus affairs, was one of the facilitators.

“The students I worked with were incredibly invested in the conversation and asked a lot of really valuable questions,” Lee said. “It was also nice to discuss implicit biases affecting characteristics other than race. In my group, we had a discussion about obesity and how that can occasionally affect the way a physician deals with patients.”

O’Shea and Roedersheimer said that they have begun discussions with Byerley and other faculty members about building this initiative for the future, reevaluating the discussions and seeing how the process could be improved.

Both said that the reaction from the students reaffirmed the program’s effectiveness and long-term value.

“Many students told us that this validated what they thought about UNC and why they chose to come here,” O’Shea said.

“These conversations are certainly going on at other medical schools, but UNC has the opportunity to step out and be a leader,” Roedersheimer added. “We want this to become an institution and tradition for all first year students.”

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