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An orthopaedic surgeon fights for diversity in medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Winter

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When Claudia L. Thomas, M.D., HS ’80, completed her residency 29 years ago, she was the nation’s first black woman to become an orthopaedic surgeon—though somebody had to inform her of her achievement. Thomas, who gave the Southwick Lecture for the Department of Orthopaedics in November, has devoted her career to making up for that oversight, fighting for diversity in both color and gender in medical schools and in doctors’ offices. Although there has been progress, she said, there’s still a long way to go.

African-Americans make up almost 11 percent of the population but just under 2 percent of orthopaedic surgeons, and only 2.3 percent of orthopaedic surgeons are women. And disparities also extend to treatment: Whites, for example, are 2.4 times likelier to get hip replacements than blacks. Race and gender disparities “are killing people,” Thomas said.

Thomas, an assistant professor of orthopaedics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led a diversification effort there that increased the number of African-American orthopaedic residents to 32 percent. “When you have a diverse program,” she said, “it becomes self-perpetuating eventually.”