Department of Surgery expands reach of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

Surgeons Brandon Baird, MD, Chelsea Dorsey, MD, Jeffrey Matthews, MD (Department Chair) are advancing the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the Department of Surgery

(from left) Surgeons Brandon Baird, MD, Chelsea Dorsey, MD, Jeffrey Matthews, MD (Department Chair) are advancing the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the Department of Surgery

The May 2020 death of George Floyd spurred social unrest as the country grappled with painful evidence of racial inequities, already made stark by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities.

University of Chicago Medicine vascular surgeon Chelsea Dorsey, MD, called the moment a “wake-up call” for the Department of Surgery.

“I think the leadership realized that we as a department did not have what was needed in terms of support for faculty and trainees who were understandably struggling to make sense of the events of last spring. What we really needed in that moment was an environment that had already been primed to tackle these types of issues," she said.

Her response was to speak up.

“Over the summer, I think many of us made a conscious effort to get out of our comfort zone of the status quo,” said Dorsey, Assistant Professor of Surgery. “As a person of color, you grow up feeling like your job is to put your head down, put in the work and not make waves. George Floyd was a call to action for me personally. I tried to lay out that we, quite frankly, didn’t have what we needed in the department, and that this was our opportunity for us to do more. Luckily, I was met with a Chair who was open to listening.”

Department Chair Jeffrey Matthews, MD, was definitely listening. While the department already had a strong reputation for its recruitment and outreach efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Matthews recognized the need to further broaden and better coordinate the work being done across sections and with the Biological Sciences Division — and accelerate the pace of progress and engagement. And, he wanted to capture the enthusiasm of faculty and staff who care deeply about creating a more equitable work and learning environment.

“What really crystallized this past year was the idea that pockets of efforts did not amount to the collective impact that we wanted,” said Matthews, Dallas B. Phemister Professor of Surgery. “We really needed to focus not on what we had done, but on all the space in between to identify the remaining gaps.”

While the department was charged with creating a diversity plan in 2019, Dorsey said the events of summer 2020 “created a sense of urgency.”

Dorsey was chosen to lead a renewed effort in the newly created role of Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chair of the newly formed DEI Steering Committee. She had already been serving as the department liaison to the BSD Faculty Diversity Committee, which is primarily focused on faculty hiring and retention. Peter Angelos, MD, PhD, Linda Kohler Anderson Professor of Surgery and Chief of Endocrine Surgery, is the committee’s co-chair.

The Department of Surgery DEI Steering Committee is composed of 17 faculty, trainee and staff representatives across the department’s 12 subspecialty sections. Six subcommittees staffed by 40 volunteers address clinical care, access and continuity; education; community engagement and activism; recruitment, career development and retention; communications; and wellness initiatives.

One of the steering committee’s first actions was to survey the needs, concerns and experiences of the surgery community and identify the gaps in past efforts. They collaborated with UChicago Medicine’s Urban Health Initiative, which helped to conduct a similar assessment in 2016 of the entire University community.

Survey results were shared throughout the department during town hall meetings last fall.

“One of the biggest takeaways was that people have a really hard time talking about DEI-related matters,” Dorsey said. “They didn’t feel that the Department of Surgery was a safe space to be able to have those conversations.”

For several months, the steering committee and subcommittees worked to formalize the DEI plan, which they submitted to the BSD Office of Diversity and Inclusion in September.

In the meantime, through training and workshops, the department has worked to build understanding around such topics as implicit bias, cultural competence, inclusive language and confronting microaggressions — subtle experiences of bias and racism that can include jokes and inadvertent slurs. DEI discussions are now integrated into quarterly grand rounds and the department’s weekly morbidity and mortality conferences, where discussion of surgical complications may also include DEI considerations: Was implicit bias a factor in this surgical outcome?

One of the challenges for the committee is to infuse the values of DEI throughout the department, taking into consideration everything from what’s hanging on the walls to how faculty is promoted.

“It’s a conversation that Dr. Dorsey and I have all the time — how to make DEI part of everyday processes,” Matthews said. “How we think about teaching and training, how we develop the careers of our faculty — that’s all deeply related to DEI.”

As part of the DEI plan, the communications subcommittee created a diversity webpage within the Department of Surgery website and is planning to change displays on the department’s walls and alcoves to reflect the accomplishments of a more diverse set of surgeons.

The subcommittee on recruitment, career development and retention, led by laryngeal surgeon Brandon Baird, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery, plans to create a formal mentorship program for faculty. With a goal to retain top talent, this program will be designed to help section chiefs ready the way for diverse faculty to rise through the ranks.

This subcommittee and the newly formed Promotions Committee are also working to create better transparency around open leadership positions and pathways to promotion, particularly for junior and mid-level faculty.

“The department has made a significant effort to push forward these initiatives,” Baird said. “While it is still early, there are definitely changes being made.”

The community engagement subcommittee launched a webpage promoting volunteer opportunities at more than 50 organizations, including several on Chicago’s South Side. Other plans include policy advocacy at the medical center and on the local, state and national levels to address health disparities and improve health outcomes of the medical center’s patient population.

“Our department has realized how important these issues are to our work as surgeons and as educators,” said Matthews. “The DEI efforts have created connections between our students, trainees, residents and fellows, and the faculty — within the department, across generations and across specialties.”

Dorsey is also encouraged by early signs of progress, noting that during DEI-related Zoom lectures, “the chat window has been lighting up more and more — a sign that people are a bit more comfortable talking about some of these topics.”

Still, she acknowledges the incremental nature of cultural change.

“I think I’ll know that things have changed when I can walk down the hallway and see more surgeons who look like me. We’re not there yet as a broader surgical community, but I remain hopeful and committed to helping our department be an agent of change," she said.