Martin Luther King Jr. Health Equity Symposium 2019 Recap

By Dominique Alexis

This year we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 90th birthday and on January 23, 2019, marked the fifth anniversary of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity's Martin Luther King Jr. Health Equity Symposium. This year's keynote speaker Jonathan Woodson, MD, who leads Boston University's University-wide Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy gave a compelling talk entitled "My Soul Looks Back; Lest we Forget (What the Evolution of MLK Teaches about Solving America's Problem's Today)." The symposium opened with remarks by Dr. PJ Brennan, Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), who reminded us just how much work remains to be done and the initiatives Penn Medicine is taking to address inequities and access for all. Vice Dean for Inclusion and Diversity, Eve J. Higginbotham, SM, MD followed, where she provided the framework and set the stage for this year's theme: Achieving Population Health Through Health Equity followed by a formal introduction of Dr. Woodson. 

Dr. Woodson's keynote address began with discussing the turbulent times of the 1960s and his personal connections. He follows up with an explanation of his talk title and the origin of "My Soul Looks Back; Lest We Forget." He goes on to enlighten us on why the teachings of Dr. King are still so relevant today. Dr. Woodson then dived into social determinants of health and references the famed quote by Dr. King "Injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and most inhumane inequality of all," as health is dependent upon social equity and economic opportunity. The various studies he went on to mention reaffirms just how important it is to address these inequities among particular groups. Later, Dr. Woodson, also former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs in the United States Department of Defense (DoD) from 2010-2016, discusses disparities among military and minority populations and the "need for a greater emphasis on social equity and a broader commitment from all segments of society and government." He highlighted many studies in which full access and equality resulted in little to no disparity among groups.

As the keynote came to a close, Dr. Woodson stated that "Dr. King provides us with a gold standard against which to evaluate any fight for social justice." He goes on to note that we should be focusing on not what happens to us if we help disenfranchised populations but, what will happen to them if we don't.

After a rich Q&A session with Dr. Woodson, a Penn faculty panel, moderated by Dr. Jaya Aysola, Assistant Dean for Inclusion and Diversity began. Roy Wade Jr., MD, PhD, MPH, MSHP discussed the two-generation impact of childhood trauma and possible ways to decrease disparities caused by them. Therese Richmond, PhD, CRNP, FAAN noted the impact of violence among African-American males, discussing the need for improving recovery from serious injury by addressing the interaction between physical injury and its psychological repercussions. Finally, Krisda Chaiyachati, MD, MPH, MSPH presented a known challenge for patients in underserved communities: transportation. His research revealed that transportation services for patients did not solve the issue of patient's making their primary care appointments and there are other factors that are involved. He discussed telemedicine as a potential way to improve healthcare access for low-income patients.  

We'd like to thank our keynote speaker, Dr. Woodson and our panelists for their presentations, the audience for participating in a thought-provoking dialogue. Thank you to everyone that attended and livestreamed the 5th annual symposium! Who would you like to see speak at next year's MLK Symposium? Send your suggestions to