Emma Sellers, MS, sits on stage while presenting to an audience of PA students from MCPHS
Community | 10/13/2023

Lessons in Inclusion and Anti-Racism: PA Students Learn to Practice Free of Bias

By Jennifer Persons

Emma Sellers, MS, sits on stage while presenting to an audience of PA students from MCPHS

Students nearing the end of their PA education participated in extensive training on providing equitable care to a diverse population.

Healthcare providers often encounter patients who may not share their physical attributes, backgrounds, or medical conditions. Recognizing, acknowledging, and respecting these differences is a critical part of being an effective provider.

This September, Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) students Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) in Boston attended a seminar on “Addressing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Anti-Racism in Healthcare.” Students heard from providers, patients, and diversity, equity, and inclusion experts about best practices for combatting healthcare disparities and providing bias-free, inclusive care.

A panel of patients on stage at the PA diversity seminar
Patients volunteered to speak with students about their experiences with medical providers.

The Patient Perspective

The best people to educate students about the inequities and biases in healthcare are the patients who have experienced them firsthand. The seminar’s patient panel featured individuals from communities including a variety of ages, racial and gender identities, and people with physical abilities that affect access to healthcare. They shared their raw, personal experiences with healthcare – the good and the bad.

“I learned it’s important how to talk to patients and listen to their needs, not just assume what they need,” said Geena Ciardelli, MPAS ’24. “Sadly, their experiences are not always great, but hearing these different perspectives is important.”

Panelists spoke candidly, using their stories to offer advice about how the students can help their patients feel heard and understood. They also emphasized that small actions or adjustments in the clinical setting can go a long way to make the patient feel seen and heard.

“I want to be that provider who patients feel like they can talk to without fear or feeling judged,” Ciardelli said. “I want patients to know I care about them and will advocate for them.”

Emma Sellers, MS, Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer of the PAEA gives a keynote address
Emma Sellers, MS, Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer of the PAEA delivers a keynote address.

Becoming Anti-Racist Providers

Emma Sellers, MS, gave a powerful keynote address about the importance of providers being anti-racist in their practice. Sellers is the Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer of the PA Education Association, the national organization representing PA educators.

“The expectation is for you to be aware that things have happened to your patients that will then dictate how they receive care and how they receive you,” Sellers said.

Her speech was full of exercises to illustrate how little students will know about their patients just by looking at them.

“It’s so important to understand patients as a whole person and leave our own biases at the door,” said CC Connard, MPAS ’25. “We need to work together to determine their specific goals and achieve them instead of fitting our patients into a course of treatment that we assume will work because of our biases.”

Sellers encouraged students that undoing their biases will be an ongoing process. While they can’t know everything about every patient’s background, experiences, or history, if students commit to approaching every patient with an open mind, they are making progress.

“We’re all re-learning and evaluating every single day in this anti-racism space,” Sellers said. “It’s up to you to create a safe and healthy space for your patients.”

Chioma Tomlinson, PA-C, speaks on stage to an audience of PA students from MCPHS
Chioma Tomlinson, PA-C, speaks to students about stigmas surrounding weight.

Combatting Weight Stigma

Another kind of bias students may encounter in their practice surrounds weight. Chioma Tomlinson, PA-C, works in primary care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She challenged students to reconsider their perception of weight as a measurement of overall health.

“Patients who live in a large body are stigmatized and disrespected by their physicians,” Tomlinson said. “This can lead to exclusions and inequities, such that patients are denied access to medical treatment and procedures.”

Tomlinson explained body mass index (BMI) is an imperfect clinical measure because it excludes race, gender, and ethnicity. She explained that weight may not be a concern if the patient is otherwise healthy.

“Take a weight-neutral approach with your patients rooted in health benefits,” she said. “There are benefits from increasing activity whether or not weight changes.”

Physician assistant studies students sit in the audience during the diveristy and inclusion seminar
Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) students attended the seminar.

Moving Forward

After the seminar, Nancy Hurwitz, DScPAS, PAC, Director of Clinical Education for the School of Physician Assistant Studies—Boston, challenged students to take the lessons they learned into their studies and clinical rotations and on into their professional practice.

“We must expose our future healthcare providers to many different cultures and individual life perspectives,” Dr. Hurwitz said. “We must meet and treat each patient where they are and leave our bias in the past."

This is the second year in a row the seminar has been held. Organizers said they hope students from other fields of study will attend in the future.

“Every student, faculty, and staff member at MCPHS could benefit from the lessons taught and stories shared here.”