Why health care and gun violence are matters of racial justice

Trauma surgeon creates unique course to help policy students recognize racial disparities

For two decades, Assoc. Prof. Brian H. Williams has worked as a trauma surgeon in hospitals around the country. Along the way, he has become a passionate educator—one who stresses the need to address health care inequities as a matter of racial justice.

“When you look at these, what do you see? Dots, colors, statistics,” Williams said during a virtual Harper Lecture on March 3, referring to maps of health disparities in Chicago. “When I look at this, I see how racial injustice manifests as health care injustice. I see how Black Chicagoans are suffering the most from gun violence, suffering from COVID infections—and now, suffering from lack of vaccination uptake.”

These issues, he added, transcend geography, ideology and economic status: “We can all have a part in eliminating this sort of injustice. There cannot be health care justice without racial justice.”

A specialist in trauma surgery, acute care surgery and surgical critical care at the University of Chicago Medicine, Williams previously worked in Dallas, where he treated police officers shot by a sniper in July 2016. After the shooting, he drew national attention for his heartfelt comments on race relations

This quarter, Williams is teaching a new elective course at the Harris School of Public Policy informed by his experiences in trauma centers. In the following Q&A, he discusses why he decided to teach “Racial Disparities in Healthcare: A Trauma Surgeon’s Perspective,” and how his career has shaped his views on creating a more just health care system in the United States.

What made you want to develop a course for public policy students?

I’ve been in medicine for over 20 years, and I’ve practiced trauma surgery in some of the busiest centers in the country, from Atlanta, to Dallas, to the South Side of Chicago. I’ve often thought that to solve this issue of violence in communities—whether it’s gun violence or interpersonal violence—we need to go upstream.

This is the only course of its kind in the country, taught by a frontline trauma surgeon for policy students. As a doctor, I can impact a couple of hundred people a year, but policymakers can impact hundreds of thousands. The policies that undergird the system are something that I cannot solve as a frontline trauma surgeon—but, by informing the next generation of policy leaders, we can work together to inform sustainable, durable solutions to these longstanding problems.

What could policymakers learn from practitioners, and vice versa?

I’m excited to teach people who are not in health care about life on the front lines of the health care system, and I think there will be a bi-directional benefit for the students and for me.

It’s always been true, but we’ve seen it in play in obvious ways in the past year: When public policy is weaponized, vulnerable people suffer. It’s important that people who are practicing medicine get to policymakers and say, “Here’s what I’m seeing.” That’s the first step to creating a more just health care system.

A lot of this course will be letting these future policymakers know what I’ve seen—as a trauma surgeon, as a Black man and a doctor. I hope that it will inspire future policymakers and let them see the world through a different lens.

What is the lens you’ll be applying to the course?

We’re putting everything through the lens of racial equity to give students information they may not otherwise have. As a trauma surgeon, I have seen a lot of tragedy, but it’s time to put that experience into a broader context: the campus, the city of Chicago and the country as a whole. When I see a shooting victim, I know that he’s not just a victim of a gunshot, but he’s the victim of a series of small and large issues that make him more susceptible to end up where he is.

How does the course address the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 is the first block of the course, but I want to look at it beyond the numbers that you see in the news. When you look at racial disparities in infections, deaths, vaccine uptake and vaccine hesitancy, it’s important that we remember that this is not simply a lack of education or a moral failing: You must make the connection between how policy is implemented throughout. When I see these numbers, I have two thoughts: first, that it is totally preventable, and second, that it is not surprising at all.

Yet some people are still surprised. We need to get to those people. Health care cannot solve that alone: Policy is the most important means of making that happen. It will require multiple disciplines—hospitals, not for profits, elected officials, policy analysts and more. Public policy will bring it together.

How did you become a trauma surgeon?

I started off in the Air Force! I went to the Air Force Academy, doing weapons testing and studying to be an aeronautical engineer. I decided to become a doctor because a lot of people in my social circle were in health care. Over the course of two years, I slowly gravitated toward the field.

The late ’90s was a time when managed care was just taking off, and there was a push to get more underrepresented minorities into the field of medicine. On day two of my trauma surgery rotation as a medical student, I realized that this was my calling. It was the pace, the adrenaline, the intensive care unit. People come in near death, the team goes to work, and you can get a lot of gratification that the families know their loved one is alive because of the trauma team. It chose me; I didn’t choose it.

—Adapted from a story first published by the Harris School of Public Policy.