Surgery embraces diversity training

Three divisions complete 4.0

Diversity and inclusion training sessions are held throughout the School of Medicine. Here, Catrina Fronick, manager of technical services at The Elizabeth H. and James S. McDonnell III Genome Institute, talks with Daniel Blash, PhD, assistant dean of cultural awareness and staff diversity, at a session. (Credit: ROBERT BOSTON)

In diversity and inclusion training sessions at Washington University School of Medicine, Erica Traxel, MD, and her colleagues learned that everyone has biases, even if people don’t act on them.

“The key is what we do with those biases after we identify them,” said Traxel, director of the residency program in the Division of Urologic Surgery. “The sessions also pointed out that we each have a responsibility to intervene if we witness an act of verbal or physical discrimination.”

Faculty and staff in the plastic and reconstructive surgery, urologic surgery and public health sciences divisions in the Department of Surgery have completed all four levels of training offered by the medical school’s diversity and inclusion team.

The levels include:

• becoming aware of cultural diversity;

• understanding unconscious bias;

• committing to developing a work environment that acknowledges a multitude of cultures;

• and developing an action plan for facilitating diversity and inclusion at the medical school.

The training is led by Daniel Blash, PhD, assistant dean of cultural awareness and staff diversity; and Denise DeCou, director of diversity and inclusion/content development and program delivery. Each level of training lasts one hour.

Susan Mackinnon, MD, the Sydney M. Jr. and Robert H. Shoenberg Professor and director of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, said she and her colleagues first were skeptical of the training sessions. “We did a complete turnabout after learning and participating in the four sessions,” she said. “We use what we learned every day. We now have strategies and tips for how to work better in very diverse groups in high-stress situations on a daily basis.”

Some of the tips taught in sessions include: how to advocate for yourself, how to deal with biases when you see them, and how to recognize when you have made a mistake.

Attendees are taught to say “ouch” if someone offends them and “oops” if they realize they have said something inappropriate or hurtful.

Many faculty in the Division of Public Health Sciences write and publish research about diversity and inclusion, according to Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery and associate director for cancer prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. But he said it still is meaningful to have an employee forum to discuss these issues and how they impact the workplace.

Arnold Bullock, MD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Urology, said the sessions were excellent and that the audience participation and comment sessions afterward provided additional insight into how stereotypes and unintentional biases affect everyone.

“I think the training helps the medical school and students on so many levels, and you can see an immediate impact,” he said. “People’s failure to believe that bias exists is amazing. I’m glad we are creating a culture where we address the bias.”

Gerald Andriole Jr., MD, the Robert Killian Royce, MD, Distinguished Professor in Urologic Surgery and director of the Division of Urologic Surgery, said employees in his division still are discussing what they learned three months after completing the entire course. “This idea has had legs,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for this training to come up in a random situation, among residents or staff. It’s made enough of an impression that it’s affecting people in the long term.”

To date, more than 7,000 School of Medicine employees have completed the first level of diversity and inclusion training. Almost 900 have completed the second level of training, and 363 have finished the third.

Timothy Eberlein, MD, head of the Department of Surgery and the Bixby Professor and Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor, said he thinks that more divisions would benefit from the course.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if more employees were to take advantage of this training, it would make us a better institution,” he said. “We would be more aware of each other and more inclusive. It would make a superb institution better for all faculty, staff and trainees.”

Training available for Danforth, Medical campuses

Diversity and inclusion training recently has become available to staff and faculty on the Danforth Campus. Department chairs who are interested in more information or in scheduling training sessions can contact DeCou at 314-935-3188 or at

On the Medical Campus, department leaders can contact Ivory Woodhouse, career development specialist, at 314-362-4986 or at