Last June, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Minnesota Medical School paused to reflect on the events happening across the state and around the globe

Striving to adjust to the new realities, faculty and students on the Medical School’s Duluth Campus acknowledged the need to break from their scheduled coursework to confront the injustice and inequities in their own backyards. Just three weeks after the loss of George Floyd, seven first-year medical students sparked a novel collaboration with Kevin Diebel, PhD, assistant dean of Curriculum, Assessment and Evaluation on the Duluth Campus. Dr. Diebel, along with several faculty and the Curriculum Office team worked with students to develop and implement a one-week series of content focused on racism in medicine and health equity. 

Collaborating for Change 

With the unique mission to serve rural communities and invest in Native American healthcare, the Duluth Campus provides a necessary space to hold conversations about serving underrepresented populations across the country with a focus on Minnesota. “The extenuating circumstances prompted urgency and action for both students and faculty involved in this project,” Dr. Diebel said. “There was a genuine desire to reflect and learn.”

Due to COVID-19, medical students could not travel to their rural preceptor sites throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin for the last duration of the Rural Medical Scholars Program (RMSP) course. In a time of isolation, the shift to virtual learning also created the potential for new and innovative learning opportunities. 

Echoing the mission of the Medical School’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the medical students leveraged their collaborative efforts with faculty to expand conversations on sociocultural impacts that lead to inequity and injustice in health and healthcare. With support from directors, the final week of the RMSP course was revamped to address implicit bias, police brutality and the worsened health disparities of COVID-19 experienced by marginalized groups in Minnesota and nationwide. 

“We seek feedback from our students on curricular changes every year, but this was the first time we participated in this type of collaboration,” Dr. Diebel said. “I think it opened our eyes to what we can accomplish by having faculty and students working together in a more meaningful way.” 

Second-year medical student and chief diversity officer, Tegan Carr, said, “Pivoting from the course schedule and implementing a new curriculum in a matter of days was a big shift from how curricular change is normally implemented, but it was what we needed to do.”

Progress for the Future 

Joining the wave of Medical Schools across the country to advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the Office of Curriculum, Assessment and Evaluation has been involved in various initiatives over the past year to improve and reform Medical School policy. Duluth faculty also work with their Twin Cities counterparts to develop sessions on a wide range of topics, such as race-based medicine, the neurobiology of racism and bias in clinical decision-making. 

Carr emphasizes the impact of this project and the role it had in inspiring other collaborations, such as the Task Force for Change (TF4C), a Duluth Campus-based community of students, faculty and staff with a common interest in propagating equity and safe spaces. 

“Parallel to the formation of Task Force for Change, student advocates on the Twin Cities campus were organizing themselves under the name of UMN Medical Education Reform Student Coalition (MERSC),” Carr said, “Cross-campus partnerships were then established to develop an extensive report on the diversity, equity and inclusion needs of the Medical School as a whole.”

Dr. Diebel added, “I was really grateful that faculty took the time and had the courage to navigate intense and emotional conversations with our students. I hope that it has empowered our students to have a stronger voice in curriculum design and develop trust in our faculty to partner with students on future projects.”

Visit the UMN MERSC website to follow the Medical School’s progress in education reform for diversity, equity and inclusion.