Health Sciences students and faculty educate about health disparities

College of Health and Behavioral Studies

by Morgan Vuknic

2023 JMU Diversity Conference

At the 2023 JMU Diversity Conference, Health Sciences faculty Catherine Zeman, Iulia Fratila and Sherri Wilson, junior Health Sciences major JaNiece Woodson and Jakeh Traylor (’22) presented on the disparities in healthcare and how book club sessions can educate people on the topic.  

In their presentation “Applying insights from the CFI book read, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice to the health sciences teaching and advocacy work,” Zeman, Fratila, Wilson and Woodson answered questions like, what are the physiological costs of inequity? And, how do these costs translate into economic suffering and missed opportunities?  

Before the presentation, Zeman, Fratila and Wilson joined Health in Color (HiC) to host a book read of Inflamed. HiC is a student organization that focuses on studying the effects that health disparities have on people of color (POC) through activities such as book reads and informational meetings.  

Fratila said that book reads like this are important because they allow students and faculty to discuss topics such as health disparities.  

“This book in particular is based on evidence,” Fratila said. “It’s a more formal way to educate yourself. When you engage in a book, you are getting a full in-depth explanation of a topic, especially in a book club setting. So, then you get that interaction element where students and faculty are communicating.” 

For their presentation at the Diversity Conference, Woodson, who is president of HiC, presented on how book club meetings can help students become educated on inequalities in healthcare.   

She said groups like HiC allow students to have an open and accepting space to talk about difficult topics. This groups allows students of all majors and backgrounds to come together and create a common sense of understanding.   

“When you look at medical journals, to people outside of health-related majors, they don’t make much sense,” Woodson said. “Through reading books, everyone can see that [health disparities] aren’t an issue that just concerns people of color, it concerns everyone. I want people to come out of our meetings feeling that they’re equipped to go out and talk to others about what they’ve learned.”   

Woodson said this issue is something that is important to her due to her own personal experiences with facing inequality in healthcare. She said she believes that nobody should be denied healthcare.   

“Everyone should have access to a hospital and should be able to feel comfortable going to one,” Woodson said. “Nobody should be denied healthcare because of their race, but it happens even today. That is one of the biggest reasons I advocate for better healthcare, not just for myself, but for the people that will come after me as well.”   

While Woodson’s part of the presentation focused on the general benefits of book-reads, Zeman, Fratila and Wilson focused on the content in Inflamed and how to incorporate the topic in their classrooms. Each faculty member took a different chapter of the book and discussed different areas of health such as how health affects the individual, cardiovascular conditions and gut health and microbiomes.   

Zeman said the main goal of the presentation was to educate not only on the topics outlined in the book, but also how to integrate information from book-reads into courses and curriculum.   

Faculty members agreed that using books to teach students about deep-rooted issues like health disparities and inequalities allows them to contextualize those issues for students. Fratila said that books like Inflamed are helpful to Health Sciences students because they explain the biomedical and social effects of health inequalities. 

“Teaching through using books gives us a historical understanding of why we have certain disparities, especially racial ones,” Fratila said. “When you look into these inequalities you find that there are policies that were enacted in the past. The big theme of the book is colonization so we were able to find out how our history of colonization leads us to the place we are today in regard to health disparities.”   

Another benefit of integrating books into the curriculum is that it allows teachers to look at health from a community perspective. Zeman said health care is often looked at as an individual issue. She said often a person is told it’s their responsibility to take care of their health condition or it’s their responsibility that they have a certain illness.   

Through using books like Inflamed that take a deep dive into disparities in the health care world, such as the fact that many machines in doctors’ offices and hospitals have different settings for Black and White individuals, Zeman said teachers and students will have the ability to see healthcare as a community responsibility, not just an individual one.   

Wilson has already begun implementing the things she covered in the presentation in her health and wellness class. She said she often prompts discussions in her classes about books the students have read or on topics that are related to inequalities in the healthcare field.  

“Health isn’t just about the individual, it’s a community and global responsibility,” Wilson said. “One thing that fascinated me about this book was how I can apply it to my own classes. Teaching health through a community-focused lens allows us to look at what health disparities are, how we understand them, and how many disparities there are in the world.”   

The main thing that the presenters hope the audience took away from their presentation is that, like health care, learning about and fighting against health disparities is a global effort. Zeman said that all students who are hoping to pursue a healthcare-related career, have to be aware of the inequalities that exist in the field.   

“Whether you’re a nursing student, a doctor or in occupational therapy, you take an oath that says you will do no harm,” Zeman said. “So, you need to know what kind of blind spots you have. Many times, these blind spots are built into healthcare so you’re doing harm without even knowing you’re doing so. It’s not something people want to perpetrate, but you need to detect it, understand it’s happening, and address it so you’re doing good.”   

Along with being educated on health disparities, Woodson said she hopes people who attended the presentation now understand that everyone is affected by health disparities, not just POC and marginalized communities.   

“Everything has an effect,” Woodson said. “You don’t have to be a person of color to want to advocate and understand what’s going on. The biggest thing you can do is read the words and talk about the uncomfortable topics.”   


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Published: Friday, April 21, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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