Health care and haircuts: Bringing preventative measures to the neighborhood
In her mission for more equitable health care, Dr. Marshala Lee MD’11 is using every tool she can: mentoring students, educating patients, even training local barbers.
Marshala Lee MD’11 has dedicated her life to addressing health disparities on both sides of the doctor-patient relationship. She is working hard to bring patient-centered care to her community so people have the information they need—where and when they need it—to make informed health care decisions and also to ensure students from underrepresented backgrounds pursue careers in medicine.
“Early on in medical school at Brown, we were enlightened about health disparities and the need to advocate for the communities we serve,” recalls Dr. Lee. “That was quickly confirmed once I started practicing. I was taken aback by the social needs of my patients.”
Working toward health equity and eliminating bias in health care has long been a focus of Dr. Lee’s medical journey. The idea may have been sparked during a discussion in a Medical School lecture about skin tones in which she questioned the categorization of dark complexions. And she had no plans of stopping there.
Since her days as a medical student, she has been working to make a difference by leading the charge and developing outreach programs in underserved communities in the U.S.
Looking good, feeling good
In one of her most recent initiatives—a barbershop-based intervention—Dr. Lee is implementing evidence-based programming geared toward eliminating disproportionate rates of hypertension and related cardiovascular disease among Black men. Studies show the effectiveness of community-based programs where individuals hear targeted messaging and receive advice from someone they trust in a place they feel comfortable—the barber in their neighborhood barbershop, for example.
“When I thought about how members of my community get information they would listen to, it became clear to me,” says Lee. “I needed to be a trusted partner in their health, so it was incumbent upon me to find a way to bring accurate information and health care right to them, so they don’t have to go searching for it. That’s how the Barbershop Initiative was born and it’s exciting to think what an impact it can have."
Through this community program, she is training licensed barbers to accurately check their customers’ blood pressure, encourage them to live healthy lives, and seek proper medical care when needed. When the pandemic struck, she was able to repurpose the program for COVID-19 outreach, distributing more than 500 COVID-19 safety kits to the community.
Beyond the barbershop
Dr. Lee consistently works hard to improve the lives of those in her community in many other ways, too. She works with authorities on issues of gun awareness and, in the last 18 months, has collaborated with legislators in an effort to provide personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing and vaccines to underserved communities. She also teaches people how to care for themselves through educational initiatives about hypertension and its potential effects as part of a blood pressure home monitoring program.
Paying it forward
Dr. Lee’s decision to become a physician was inspired by her grandmother who was a hospital night-shift head nurse but could not hold that same position during the day simply because she was Black. As a medical student at Brown, Lee focused on doing something to shape what the future of medicine might look like.
She served as president of the Medical School’s Student National Medical Association (SNMA) chapter, which organized and hosted a regional conference on disparities in health care that brought together minority clinicians from across New England, as well as students and faculty from Brown and Harvard.
Even as a medical student, Dr. Lee knew she wanted to make a long-term impact on medicine beyond what she will accomplish in her lifetime, so she introduced local high school students to the medical profession with a “meet the cadaver” event and created an MCAT-prep session for college undergraduates. To this day, she continues her work with students underrepresented in medicine by mentoring them and sticking with them. In fact, there is a current student in her third year at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University whom Dr. Lee has been mentoring for more than seven years.
“I understand the unique challenges faced by many students of color,” says Lee. “So, I make it a priority to help them through the process because I want to make sure the work I do today has long-lasting impact on their lives, the future face of the medical workforce and, therefore, on the care future patients receive as a result.”
In honor of her ceaseless dedication to diversifying the medical field pipeline, the Brown Medical Alumni Association recognized Dr. Lee this year by presenting her with the inaugural Junior Alumni Award for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This award recognizes medical alumni (within 10 years of graduation) who have demonstrated leadership in diversity, equity, and inclusion activities that have led to improving awareness and engagement related to diversity in medicine and/or health equity.
“What inspires me the most to do what I do day-in and day-out, is the vision and history behind the Brown-Tougaloo partnership,” says Dr. Lee. “The fact that this pathway to medical school was established when many Black individuals were not able to complete their classroom, clinical or residency training in Mississippi because of the color of their skin, makes me want to ensure that the future is better for physicians and patients coming up behind me. And this desire is not unique to me…I am fortunate to be part of a group of remarkable Brown medical alumni who are dedicated to being changemakers in our communities.”
Board-certified family medicine physician Dr. Marshala Lee is the Director of the Harrington Value Institute Community Partnership Fund at ChristianaCare and the Director of the Harrington Value Institute Translational Research Internship. She also serves as the lead physician at Shortlidge Academy’s School-based health center sponsored by ChristianaCare and as a founding member of ChristianaCare’s Physician Diversity Alliance Employee Resource Group. Prior to working at ChristianaCare, Dr. Lee served as the Graduate Medical Education Branch Chief at the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Health Workforce. There she managed programs that support medical and dental residencies at children’s hospitals and health centers with the goal of decreasing health workforce shortages. Dr. Lee completed her undergraduate training at Tougaloo College, completed her family medicine residency training at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and obtained a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Healthcare Management and Policy from Harvard as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Minority Health Policy.