Public Service Announcement with Dr. James E.K. Hildreth

Step inside the minds of health care leaders across the country with a new series aimed at spreading factual, informative and inspiring knowledge through conversations with a list of influential and knowledgeable health and policy experts in various fields. Hosted by James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D., infectious disease expert and researcher and CEO and president of one of the country’s four HBCU medical institutions, Meharry Medical College, our first season focuses on relevant and interesting topics around health that will be effective in enhancing the dissemination of health care-based research and knowledge. We’ll provide an invigorating outlet for the voices of these empowered figures, who talk openly and honestly about their journey in medicine and policy, their motivations, the challenges they’ve overcome and their hopes for the future of health care.


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Episode Blogs

Podcast host James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D., takes the guest seat in this unique first episode to guide listeners through his personal journey of struggle and triumph and to encourage others to take chances with their own goals, despite limiting circumstances.


“There is a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock called There Were No Mirrors In My Nana’s House,” Hildreth recalls. “I didn’t know my skin was too dark, my nose was too big, or my hair was too nappy. My mother took down the figurative mirrors and didn’t let all those things that the external world was throwing at me become internalized. My mother was not having any of it.”


In this special episode of Public Service Announcement with Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, guest host Marcus Whitney interviews Hildreth, who provides insight into his personal journey as a Black man in health care, shares how his childhood impacted his path through elite higher education and offers optimism toward the future of diverse health care.


Ambition Requires Support

Growing up in the 1960s, Hildreth describes how his father’s undertreated illness and eventual passing when he was 11 years old inspired his ambition to be in the medical field, and defy the racial boundaries that had been established.


“I could never quite understand why my father could never get the care he needed. And I realized that it was because we were poor and Black and lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” he said. “So it made me angry, to be honest with you.”


As more tragedies within the Black community took place, including the death of MLK, Hildreth’s mother urged him to transform his anger into action. This led to his rigorous pursuit for excellence in education.


“In April of 1975, I got a letter from Cambridge informing me that I’d been accepted to Harvard with a scholarship,” he illustrated. “The truth is, I applied to all the Ivy League schools, and they all gave me an acceptance. But since my research was at Harvard, that’s where I went.”


Recalling the instances where he doubted his own abilities yet exceeded those doubts, Hildreth lifted up people in his life who supported his ambition, and reminded him of his boundless capabilities.


“When I went into the ninth grade, there were a lot of people who didn’t want the valedictorian of my class to be an African-American male, but there were teachers who took the risk to make sure that I got what I deserved.”


Support Nurtures Passion

As a Black man enrolled at an Ivy League institution, Hildreth recalled his feelings of isolation entering Harvard, however described how he found community within feeling like an imposter.


“When I arrived in Harvard in the fall of ’75, there were 1600 students in the freshman class, and about 120 of us were Black,” he said. “We kind of bonded together because we all felt to some extent, like we were imposters. I had six colleagues that I went through Harvard with, and we did all kinds of things together.”


Reflecting upon the continuation of his education at Johns Hopkins, Hildreth told the story of how Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., the first Black faculty member at Johns Hopkins, made it possible for him and other Black students to enroll.


“He wrote personal letters to about 30 of us who had done really well on the MCAT with the message, ‘We’d love to have you here at Johns Hopkins.’ Levi showed me what one person can do with courage, and he was a great mentor for me during my time at Hopkins.”

Passion Fuels Curiosity

Sharing his passion for health care research and drive to always dive deeper to find new information, Hildreth described an experiment his professor prompted him to complete, which led to a never-seen-before medical discovery.


“It became obvious very quickly that the experiment had worked, and I realized I’m the only human being who has ever known this,” Hildreth recalled. “I thought, wow, that’s pretty powerful, right? That was the first time I really understood the excitement of generating new knowledge.”


Speaking about his current role as President and CEO of Meharry Medical College, Hildreth highlighted the importance of supporting his medical students who may pursue non-traditional tracks, nurturing their passion for the health care field.


“I was able to pay it forward by being the Dean for these students and trying to help them be successful in what they were doing,” he explained. “So part of my modus operandi is to create opportunities for students to get excited about something and possibly pursue it as their careers.”


Despite his many accomplishments throughout his career in education, Hildreth emphasized how he continues to dig deeper in his medical career, and is inspired by his dreams and ambitions to keep going.


“One of my first graduate students at Hopkins brought me back a wall hanging from China, and one of the lines in the poem reads that, ‘as long as your dreams overshadow your memories, you’re still young,’” he recalled. “And I still have some dreams that definitely overshadow my memory, so I’m going to keep on rolling.”

Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon shares her expertise in dental health, highlighting the influential people in her life who led her to break barriers within her career and succeed in the health care industry.


“At one time it was thought that you started when individuals were in college or in high school, but the reality of it, if you really want to make an impact, it’s starting with children when they start school and planting that seed then that you can be a doctor.”


Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon, dean of the School of Dentistry at Meharry Medical College, joins Dr. Hildreth to illustrate the importance of inclusion within the health care industry, the power of consistent self-care and how exposing youth to dentistry will better the future of health care overall.


Diversity Promotes Healing

Within her professional career, Farmer-Dixon describes her intention to promote diversity within the health care industry and encourage people of color to pursue and excel in dentistry.


“As African-Americans, we make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but we only make up a little less than 4% of the dental workforce,” Farmer-Dixon shared. “It’s important to be very intentional about encouraging people of color to see dentistry as a viable option because increasing diversity in the workforce will also help with increasing the overall outcomes of oral health in those communities.”


Expanding on the disadvantages of the lack of health care within marginalized communities for low-income Americans, Farmer-Dixon highlighted the importance of yearly health checkups to prevent potential health issues.


“We’ll often see patients who have puffy lungs or bleeding gums and have not seen a physician or doctor, but there are indications that they may have hypertension or that they may have diabetes,” Farmer-Dixon observed. “It is important to have integrated care where there is a connection between the team’s approach to healthcare and working with physicians and dentists.”


Working toward a future with integrated care, Farmer-Dixon describes her ambitions to train future health care professionals to provide access for underserved communities to their healthcare needs.


“Unfortunately, with the increasing number of dental schools, what we have not seen is a significant increase in the number of minorities that are being enrolled. Meharry is intentional about training individuals who are going to have a specific focus and a passion for serving underserved communities and for serving communities that have the greatest need.”


Healthy Teeth Is A Healthy Body

Explaining her purpose in working in dentistry and oral care, Farmer-Dixon illustrated the habits to encourage children toward a lifetime of oral hygiene, which encourages them to practice overall self-care.


“Those early practices of brushing your teeth regularly, drinking a lot of water, exercising, we do those things as a child and instill importance in those tasks,” she reinforced. “Teaching them that when they lose their baby teeth, those grown-up teeth can last a lifetime, but they need to take care of them like they take care of their toys and clothes.”


Farmer-Dixon continues to explain how healthy teeth influence every aspect of a person’s life and career, particularly how healthy oral hygiene can provide an advantage during job searches and other career endeavors.


“In any type of job you may have the skillset, but from an appearance standpoint, if you’re totally edentulous or all of your anterior teeth are missing, that does impact your marketability,” Dean Farmer-Dixon pointed out. “If you have the skill set, but from an appearance standpoint, someone else with the skillset is looking a lot better, then, unfortunately, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.”


Providing examples of how to better care for your teeth, Farmer-Dixon provided examples of everyday habits to implement in one’s life for a healthier mouth.


“There are some basic things like brushing your teeth and replacing your toothbrush, but then also being cognizant of what you’re eating and drinking water versus drinking sugary sweetened beverages that can promote cavities, and eating healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, is important.”


Empowering Future Leaders

Looking toward the future, Farmer-Dixon emphasizes the importance of encouraging all students, especially from childhood, to view health care as a potential career and instill the belief that their ambitions are limitless.


“At Meharry, we have Medical Mondays at middle schools where we place a dental chair in a middle school and give children the opportunity to come in and be the dentist, letting them look in our mouth, put on white coats, and letting them take pictures so they see themselves and they begin to imagine.”


Farmer-Dixon believes in doing so, it may encourage those who never considered dentistry as a career path. “That’s what they do with basketball. They put a basketball uniform on them and they put a basketball in their hand. Why can’t we do the same thing in medicine and dentistry?


This hands-on approach to educating youth about health care is how Farmer-Dixon began her pursuit in the health care world, as she describes her experience during a summer high-school healthcare program witnessing a patient’s transformation.


“I shadowed a dentist and I saw the impact that he was making to see a lady come in and to leave with teeth that made her look completely different,” Farmer-Dixon recalled. “Just seeing the confidence right before my eyes when she got her teeth and how happy she was made me decide this is what I want to do.”


Concluding the conversation, Farmer-Dixon shared some practical advice about bettering your daily oral hygiene, and furthermore, bettering your life.


“The teeth can last a lifetime, so being cognizant of what it is that you’re putting in your mouth and staying away from those sugary sweetened beverages is vital. Know what healthy means and always seek guidance.”

Dr. Clive Callender offers solutions to breaking racial barriers from a surgical perspective, and how empowering all people to be involved in the medical realm can make a lasting impact on the world.


“At all levels, I think it’s important to educate and empower people of color. The more we’re involved, the better off we are because diversity begets ingenuity, and having people of color in those positions is best for all of us.”


Dr. Clive Callender, surgeon, educator and medical trailblazer joins host Dr. James E.K. Hildreth to reflect on how his difficult upbringing inspired his later success as a medical professional and educator and highlights the importance of diversity in organ transplantation, to preserve as many lives as possible.


A Clear Vision

Faced with a difficult upbringing, Dr. Callender reflected on how his faith in God delivered him through racial and academic struggles and shaped his desire to help others by practicing medicine.


“At the age of seven, I accepted Christ as my savior, and around that time decided that I wanted to become a medical missionary so that I could affect the souls of mankind and the bodies of mankind at the same time.”


As a continuation of how his faith grounded him through uncertainties during his education, Callender spoke on how his church supported him through financial struggles and gave him the support needed to kick off his career.


“My church had a special ceremony in which they got money so I could go to medical school because I couldn’t afford it, didn’t have the funds,” Callender recalled. “I finished after four years as the number one student in my class, which was unbelievable because I had such a mediocre beginning.”


Maintaining a hopeful perspective which gave him the motivation to excel in medical school, Dr. Callender shared his experience with contracting a dangerous case of tuberculosis as a teenager, and despite the odds, came to realize his capabilities are limitless.


“I was in the hospital there for 18 months. But the thing that happened that was really interesting is that they gave me an IQ test to see what I could accomplish, and the test revealed that I could accomplish anything that I wanted to accomplish.”


An Inclusive Attitude

Learning from his medical career, Dr. Callender highlighted the dangers of having a shortage of minority kidney donors, and how he and his colleague conducted practical research to discover psychological and socioeconomic reasons for the diversity gap.


“I went to Howard University, to the president and medical director and was able to get $500 to use to try to go to the black residents in D.C. and get an answer to the question, ‘Why is it that Black people are reluctant to become transplant donors?’”


For these reasons, which include a lack of education about kidney donations, misconceptions, and a long history of medical racism, Dr. Callender partnered with Dow Chemical to create a practical and effective solution.


“Dow Chemical needed a positive image,” Dr. Callender explained. “So when they heard what we were doing, they sponsored me to go across the nation to 26 cities in the United States and for historically Black colleges to talk about the need for Black organ donors.”


Dr. Callender encourages listeners to consider educating themselves by contributing to organ donation and spreading awareness about its benefits.


“For National Minority Donor Awareness Month, our efforts are to get all people of color to recognize how important it is for us to become part of the solution to this problem,” Dr. Callender urged. “Not only must we donate organs, but we also must develop healthy lifestyles, eat healthy exercise, and eat the right food and exercise to prevent the need for transplantation in the first place.”


A Drive For Empowerment

As an agent of change, Dr. Callender seeks to inspire students from across the country through the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program to pursue careers in medicine and become part of an ever-growing solution.


“We went to 25 cities across the United States. At each of these sites, we went into the community to educate and empower them to become part of the solution,” Dr. Callender explained. “What we did was special, and hadn’t been done before. We went into the community and actually funded them to become educated in order to take the message to the community to educate and empower them to make a difference.”


As Dr. Callender continues to inspire young professionals, he offered viewers advice on how to go about any career endeavor and concluded with a call to action to fail, and allow the space for greatness to enter their lives.


“One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve gone along this journey is that it’s okay to fail. I’ve had many failures in my career. I talk about the successes, but actually, greatness comes when you are not only allowed to fail but retain your enthusiasm after you fail and continue to battle so that you never give up, you continue to fight, continue to fight until you win.”


CEO Bobby Watts provides insight into effective strategies for ensuring equal access to healthcare despite financial position, and emphasizes the necessity of prioritizing disadvantaged citizens to care for the community at large.


“I want everyone to realize what affects the health of the public, affects everyone, including them and their families,” Watts emphasized. “If we’re really going to have an effective public system, we need to look at the roots of why certain communities and individuals are in poorer health and address it.”


In this episode of Public Service Announcement, Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council joins Dr. Hildreth to discuss the vitality of health equity in the face of economic disparity, and how understanding the homelessness crisis as a substantial human rights issue promotes empathy and strengthens the country as a whole.


Education Creates Awareness

Addressing the gaps in health equity, Watts describes how the social factors within one’s environment influence the amount and quality of healthcare they receive, and points out disadvantages that arise in the face of issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


“For those unhoused, they were at a tremendous risk of contracting COVID and had much less access to care,” Watts explained. “If you lived in congregate housing in an apartment building, you would be more at risk just by riding the elevators where people who lived in private homes could afford to stay in.”


Watts urges that public policy has made it nearly impossible to ensure thousands of people can access affordable housing, leading to an array of human-rights issues.


“When we think about the social and political determinants of health, one of the choices as a nation is that we have, at a given night, a minimum of 60,000 people living on the streets or in shelters in the richest country on Earth.”


To remedy the damage done by these policies, Watts offers a solution of executing what has already worked in the past, and working hard to maintain momentum and preserve good work.


“We as a country have reduced the number of veterans experiencing chronic homelessness by over half in the last 10 years,” Watts recollects. “We found out we know what works. We’ve proven that it works. We just have not done it at a scale commensurate with the problem.”


Awareness Sparks Action

Understanding that these issues remain largely underheard in mainstream media, Watts highlights the vitality of becoming aware of the disproportionate health system, and training healthcare providers to screen patients.


“We as a rule, do not do a good job of asking, of screening our patients, or asking them about housing status or their level of food insecurity,” Watts pointed out. “I like to say, if you don’t know that as a clinician, how can you know that your treatment plan is effective?”


The consequences of failing to pay attention to details such as these lead to devastating results, as evidenced by the data Watts presented regarding the mortality rates amongst the unhorsed population.


“For every age group, the age adjusted mortality for people experiencing homelessness is at least three to four times that of the housed population,” Watts informed. “And the average age of those who die on the streets is about 20 to 30 years, meaning we are losing two to three decades of life among this population, which is a tremendous waste of human potential.”


As a result of his awareness of the issue, Watts describes an effective means of increasing others’ awareness about this crisis within healthcare organizations, which begins with equity, inclusion, and accounting for the needs of their community partners.


“What I have seen is that healthcare organizations want to work with community partners, but they don’t really treat the community partners as true partners as equals. I want to go back to the roots of the community healthcare movement in the 1960s which started by listening to the community. It’s proven to be effective because that is what was done.”


Action Creates Change

As Watts sets out to move toward effective action to ensure safety for the unhoused population, he highlights the equity and empathy-centered mission of NHHC.


“We view addressing homelessness in the richest country on earth as a moral issue, as a matter of social justice,” he illustrated. “The mission of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council is to build an equitable, high quality healthcare system. That is our goal.”


Expanding on the necessity of centering social justice within the healthcare system, Watts reinforces how important gaining awareness around minority injustice, and acknowledging the long history of racism within healthcare.


“We see that in many of the social determinants of health, of the social drivers of health and homelessness is just one example where African-Americans and Native Americans are overrepresented by more than three times their share of the population of people who are among the most deprived of our nation’s resources.”


Concluding his insights into the social determinants of health and how his company is constantly working to make a lasting impact, Watts urges listeners to contribute toward obtaining a stronger public health system, for the benefit of not only themselves, but every member of society.


“We need a strong public health system that is looking out for everyone. And when we do, everyone will benefit,” Watts explained. “Every individual in this country will benefit, every family will benefit every community, every population group.”

Dr. Atul Grover outlines concerns regarding health disparities caused by government regulation within the minority population, and provides solutions toward growth and equal access to health care.


“There’s always been a great deal of pushback from the medical profession and health professionals in general to try and protect their patients and the public,” says Grover. “This is the first time that I can recall where that intrusion has been so direct, so deliberate, and potentially so devastating to the health of our patients.”


As a researcher and specialist at AAMC, he describes his goal of contributing to growth in academic medicine through increasing diversity within the health care workforce, the dangers of restrictive policies within OB-GYN and AAMC’s advocacy for federal support in residency training programs, and securing the funding which will make a lasting change.


Prioritizing Representation

When evaluating data concerning the impact of restrictive abortion laws Grover expresses his concern for how these policies impact minority residents applying for OB-GYN.


“The overall decrease in the number of applicants from US medical schools that were applying went down about 5%,” he shares. “States where abortion was limited or restricted or illegal, it went down twice as much, about 10%”


“If that trend is more pronounced for underrepresented applicants, minorities in medicine, I can tell you right now we do pretty dismally in terms of getting good representation from Latinos and African-American students in the medical profession.”


Expanding on the issue of disparities within minorities in health care, Grover describes the negative regional effects of discouraging OB-GYN practices.


“Because women and minorities tend to be more likely to practice in rural areas and with urban underserved patients, I am concerned that this is going to make the access challenges in rural areas potentially much, much worse.”


Grover highlights the vitality of including diversity in the workforce, and how it benefits the overall healthcare of patients and their ability to gain an accurate diagnosis.


“There is a great deal of evidence that has found that racial, ethnic and cultural concordance between health care providers and their patients lead to improved communication between patient and provider, increased adherence to advice and even shorter time to diagnoses.”



Increasing Access

Discussing the restricting policies that have discouraged medical students from pursuing OBG-YN careers, Dr. Grover outlines the privacy and humanitarian concerns about the criminalizing of abortions.


“The word ‘criminalized’ is scary for all of us in medicine and health care. Not only do we tend to want to keep that relationship as personal and private as possible between ourselves and our patients, but I think if you look at the behavior of physicians, we do know that there’s defensive behavior because physicians don’t want to get sued.”


The risk of criminalization, Grover says, is severe in terms of consequences for people considering specialties in which care of women of reproductive age is going to be an issue.


Grover also emphasizes the possible detriments to women’s health and safety, and how preventative measures are vital moving forward.


In addition to the lack of access, he elaborates on how rural residents have a disadvantage that only gets worse with the shortage of physicians and prevents kids from rural areas from pursuing careers in medicine.


“Rural residents have to travel three to four times as long to get a provider,” Grover urges. “They have less access to specialty care and worse health status than their urban counterparts, which is tied to higher poverty rates and lower educational attainment, as well as the lack of prehospital services.”


Creating Lasting Change

Describing what federal policy changes he wants to see improvements made in health care, Grover urges more health care workers to contribute to the overall health of their patients, including their mental health.


“I think we’re hopefully becoming more willing to accept that mental health is a part of our overall health, but that means we have had to rely on several hundred thousand social workers, licensed counselors and addiction treatment specialists, and we need more of all of them.”


Grover believes diverse teams make a difference in the lives of patients and aspiring medical professionals alike, and the importance of the court to recognize this.


“Without people from diverse backgrounds that make up diverse teams, we are never going to ask the questions about how we cure sickle cell with CRISPR,” Grover explains. “Those questions wouldn’t come up, and it is incredibly frustrating that the court didn’t recognize this.”


Grover concludes by acknowledging the efforts put forth by host Dr. James Hildreth and Meharry Medical College to keep the focus where it belongs, on the patient.


“Thank you for taking the time to talk about these issues,” Gover began, referring to Hildreth. “Because of the recent Supreme Court decisions and the current political environment, I think we’re going to turn to you more than ever to help us figure out how we create a health care workforce that actually serves the population that we have and the way they deserve.”

Jeannette South-Paul, M.D., DHL(Hon), FAAFP, executive vice president and Provost of Meharry Medical College and veteran herself, joins James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD, to discuss the longstanding relationship between the Department of Veterans Affairs and medical schools across the country as well as the impact this collaboration has on the broader health care landscape.


“Realizing the value of the VA helps to emphasize the importance of living a life of service,” South-Paul shared. “When I went to medical school and got an Army scholarship, I had no vision of how I was able to pay for medical school, I just knew I was going to be serving the country that my parents were so excited about coming to.”


Inclusivity In Care

While explaining how veterans access care through the VA, South-Paul noted the importance of recognizing women veterans, and caring for their unique struggles.

“There are separate clinics to help meet the needs of our women veterans because for many of them, they’ve had some traumatic experiences and winding their way through a big facility amongst a lot of men is destabilizing,” she explained.


Expanding on how the VA focuses on minority groups of veterans, South-Paul discussed the benefits of veterans of color receiving care from clinicians who look like them, and can create an air of familiarity.


“Native Americans and American Indians, Latinos, and African-Americans are overrepresented among veterans compared to their low percentage of the population and representation of the country,” South-Paul outlined. “They deserve to have the most diverse group of clinicians where they can feel as if there’s somebody who understands their journey.”


In terms of dental care, South-Paul proudly reflected on the VA’s ongoing contributions to providing dental care for under-privileged areas and communities.


“The more disadvantaged or under-resourced communities there are, the more likely people will have very few teeth in their mouth because it’s limited subsidy for it, and they don’t see the connection between oral health and physical health.”


Intentionality With Education

Speaking on the education of current medical students and what they should know as they begin their careers, South-Paul spoke on the vitality of the VA’s integrated care program, and addressed a variety of people’s needs.


“It’s so important for medical students to learn it’s the only national integrated system of care we have.”

Continuing the discussion of health care education, South-Paul emphasized how the VA focuses on primary care and clinical resources that otherwise would not be available. “Sometimes the thing that a particular institution needs is more primary care. And for some of the less resourced institutions, we’re particularly good at providing primary care.”


Providing education through the VA is a priority within the organization, which South-Paul emphasizes, and speaks on the high standards of the VA which reflect upon the students.


“Ten percent of all the trainees in the country are managed by VA. I think it’s the largest manager of gradual medical education, but all of the other associated health sciences, which I think is the term VA uses.”


Empathy for All

South-Paul reflected on how her involvement in the organization began and expressed her appreciation for “whole-person” care, which accounts for the physical, behavioral, emotional, spiritual and socioeconomic well being of the patient.


“Whole person care means your ability to achieve that aspect of whole health by using interprofessional teams based approach where you establish trust in a longitudinal fashion.”


As a former veteran herself, South-Paul urged listeners to understand and empathize with the unique experiences and perspectives of veterans. “The reality is that veterans have some unique needs and by recognizing what their experiences have been, asking them what has been their experience helps trainees understand their perspectives.”


South-Paul continues to carry an attitude of service throughout her every-day life, and provides a call to action for listeners to do the same, and give back to those who have helped them.


“As John F. Kennedy said, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’” she quoted. “And it’s as true today as it was then.”

Be sure to follow Public Service Announcement with Dr. James E.K. Hildreth on Apple, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your favorite podcasts.