Ending Disparities in Clinical Care

From the President,

From the President

Black maternal mortality is one of this country’s cruelest health care disparities, and I am so proud of the many Wellesley alumnae who are working to end it.

Even though more than 80% of maternal deaths are preventable, Black mothers die at a rate three times that of white mothers—largely of cardiovascular conditions. Clearly, much more research needs to be done to help us understand the compounding factors that lead to such poor outcomes in childbirth for Black women. And internists, obstetricians, and cardiologists need to pay much more attention to young women at risk.

We also need to bridge a few other chasms in clinical care. First, many physicians simply don’t know enough about women’s health and the ways that the biological variable of sex influences the prevalence and presentation of diseases. Second, many physicians consider women unreliable reporters of their own symptoms—and this is especially true for women of color.

At the opening celebration for our Science Complex in October, Dr. Dana Im ’10, who leads quality and safety for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, described the problem this way: “Our goal is to provide high quality care to all of our patients, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation—and other factors we hope we are blind to, but we really are not. This is why we need leaders in medicine to represent our patients—especially those who are underrepresented in our community.”

At a minimum, we need many more leaders in science and medicine who are attuned to the meaningful differences that lead to disparities in health outcomes, whether the biological factor of sex or social factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender. That is one reason why Wellesley’s commitment to inclusive excellence in STEM education is so important: We are a major contributor nationwide of women who earn advanced degrees in science and medicine. In addition, over the past 10 years, we have succeeded in doubling the percentage of STEM degrees we award to underrepresented minority students.

‘When we look at inequities in health such as Black maternal mortality, we need to recognize that this is more than a scientific puzzle—it is also a red flag for systemic failings that can only be solved with better leadership.’

This success has required real institutional transformation. At Wellesley, we have invested in evidence-based change in a few key areas:

First, we are creating multiple pathways into STEM majors. We know that a lot of attrition from STEM occurs during or at the end of introductory classes, but these traditional “weed-out classes” may measure privilege more accurately than talent. Our brilliant students arrive with very unequal high school experiences and exposures in the sciences. That doesn’t mean that those who arrive less prepared cannot go on to soar—if they are taught in a way that allows them to catch up.

Second, we have doubled down on hands-on experiences that bring our students into the culture of science. We offer ample opportunities for undergraduate research, which have now expanded with the completion of our new Science Complex, the largest capital investment in Wellesley history.

Third, we have allowed the students themselves to lead in curricular development and peer mentorship, so that we can better understand what has helped them to succeed.

Finally, we have invested in faculty who are adept at creating inclusive classrooms and labs where all students can thrive.

When we look at inequities in health such as Black maternal mortality, we need to recognize that this is more than a scientific puzzle—it is also a red flag for systemic failings that can only be solved with better leadership. At Wellesley, we are educating the next generation of diverse women leaders in medicine and science. They are going to help us close the most painful gaps and make health equity a reality.

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