By: Tiffany Richards, Dalhousie MD Class of 2020
During the final week of August 2016 I, and 108 of my new classmates, filed into the Sir Charles Tupper Medical building at Dalhousie University. The air was filled with nervousness and also excitement as we officially began our four year journey to becoming Medical Doctors. That first week was a whirlwind of presentations centred on important issues such as: financing our education, professionalism, ways to get involved in the school community and our new curriculum.
On my second day as a medical student I was pleasantly surprised that our program directors, in consultation with two student committees: Health Association of African Canadians-Student Organization and Medical Student Diversity and Inclusion Committee included a 90 minute session, presented by the Human Rights, Equity, and Harassment Prevention Office entitled, “The Elephant in the Room.” During my years as a pre-medical student I had heard about the changing landscape of medical education and medical practice. Specifically, I learned that there is a shifting focus within these spaces; from an exclusively biomedical focus to a perspective that is whole-person centred. I learned that the medical education system is working to acknowledge the importance of factors such as social determinants of health (e.g. culture, ethnicity and income) in improving the health of patients. “The Elephant in the Room,” was billed as a conversation series which would introduce my class to discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion.
The inclusion of this workshop as a featured part of the second day of medical school helped to assure me that Dalhousie and the medical school is genuinely committed to training physicians who are aware of the importance of not only diversity, but also inclusion. As a Black Canadian with Nova Scotian and Caribbean heritage I have often found that I am one of the only Black women, or persons of color, in certain academic settings. One of the reasons that I chose to attend Dalhousie University for my medical training is their commitment to recruiting students from, and serving the health care needs of, this province’s under-represented groups (e.g. Aboriginal and African Nova Scotian) through programs like the Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative and Promoting Leadership in health for African Nova Scotians or PLANS. In addition to this, the PLANS Program Manager, Michelle, supported me throughout my journey to medicine and has also created a supportive network where I can connect with other Black Canadians in medicine as well as Black physicians for mentorship.
The Elephant in the Room provided my classmates and I with a safe space to talk about issues that can, at times, be uncomfortable. For instance, how do the labels that those around us wear, impact our interactions? In what ways do we experience oppression or privilege in our own lives? How does inclusion relate to diversity? In my own educational experience, I have found that when these important conversations are not explicitly and safely introduced in the classroom the onus may fall on marginalized students to challenge stereotypes and to ensure that diverse perspectives are included in classroom discussions. I appreciate that we had the opportunity to begin having these dialogues early in our medical education journey; and I hope to see these conversations continue as I think that they are essential to ensuring that we take the best care of our future patients and our fellow classmates.
One final takeaway that I received from participating in the Elephant in the Room session was the importance of allyship. We learned that allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege that has been bestowed upon them by society and who work with marginalized groups to confront injustice. As future physicians, patient advocates, stewards of the healthcare system and as members of our community, I believe that it is essential that my classmates and I make a conscious, daily effort to be allies. We all must continually re-evaluate our privilege, continue to have important and sometimes difficult conversations and continue to build supportive relationships with the diverse populations that we aim to serve.