Stanford Medicine’s first Health Equity Symposium focuses on improving health of marginalized populations

At the 2024 Health Equity Symposium, speakers emphasized that racism is alive and well, and workshop attendees identified ways to tackle health disparities.

- By Emily Moskal

Keynote speaker David Williams noted that Black people in the U.S. still have shorter life expectancy than white Americans. 
Alan Toth

It wasn’t until 1990 that Black Americans lived as long as white Americans did in 1950, said David Williams, PhD, a Harvard University sociologist and the keynote speaker at Stanford Medicine’s inaugural Health Equity Symposium.

An unequal distribution of resources such as healthy food, quality education and routine doctor visits is a major contributor to the disparities in health outcomes we see today, he said, noting that Black people in the United States still have a shorter lifespan than the average white person.

These racial inequities are not the result of a broken system, Williams said, but the products of intentional segregation: “They reflect a carefully crafted system, functioning as planned with successfully implemented social policies, many of which are rooted in racism.”

On the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Stanford Medicine and the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute held the first Health Equity Symposium on Jan. 17 to identify solutions to structural racism and other social determinants of health, and to energize faculty, staff and students to take steps toward a more just future.

The School of Medicine dean, Lloyd Minor, MD, kicked off the event and set the tone for workshops with a King quote from 1966: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

“This statement by Dr. King so many years ago still applies today,” said Minor, who is also vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University.

Dismantling racism

Health professionals have a responsibility to uptake King’s message and grapple with the challenges he posed, said Joyce Sackey, MD, the inaugural chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Stanford Medicine who spoke at the symposium.

“Exchanging ideas, challenging norms and establishing best practices will ultimately move us toward a future in which we’re not only able to disseminate and implement these practices that have health equity lens at the center to the broader local community,” Sackey said, “but we can also set a new standard of care. I firmly believe that if we continue to collaborate in meaningful ways, we will move the needle on health equity and improve health outcomes for all our patients.”

Lerone Martin, PhD, director of the King institute — which is digitizing King’s sermons, personal letters and even his elementary school report card — moderated a panel in which he asked a group of researchers, “What would each of you say is the most pressing call to action for this Stanford community?”

It’s doing the deep dive that researchers are trained to do, said Maya Rossin-Slater, PhD, associate professor of health policy, but even more critically, taking the knowledge to policy makers who need evidence-based information.

Ananta Addala, DO, assistant professor of pediatrics, said researchers have a responsibility to eliminate unintended bias from their data and not put additional burdens on marginalized communities, such as requiring them to travel long distances to a research center.

Participants at the symposium broke into working groups to tackle various aspects of inequity, including in research, clinical care, education and policy. Their recommendations fell into six themes:

  • Connect: Encourage networking between people working in health equity.
  • Integrate: Reduce the transactional feeling of doing community work.
  • Simplify: Share lessons to reduce friction points of working in health equity.
  • Narrate: Capture the public’s imagination with storytelling.
  • Support: Take diversity, equity and inclusion into account when hiring and training.
  • Reward: Ensure there’s visibility for successes, including career advancement.

Martin wrapped up the event expressing hope that the energy brought to the event would carry forward.

“I studied the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “One of the things that I know about successful movements for justice and equity is that they had momentum, and they had organization and structure. If we’re going to continue doing this as a community, we’ve got to keep the momentum going that we’ve established today.”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2023 ISSUE 3

Exploring ways AI is applied to health care