Sawning works to promote diversity in medical education and training

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Susan Sawning (96) is working to improve health care for marginalized groups by ensuring medical students receive training to help them deliver better treatment.   

A graduate of MSU’s social work program, Sawning is the co-director of the Introduction to Clinical Medicine course at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. The course is required for all first-year and second-year medical students and Sawning is working with a team of instructors to revise the curriculum to include content about anti-racism, disparities in health care, environmental injustice and compassion cultivation. The goal is to provide better health care to people of color and LGBTQI+ patients. She said treatment disparities are a big problem in the medical field.   

“Many people do not know that there are significant health disparities in many patient populations and lack of healthcare provider knowledge, as well as discrimination and bias contribute greatly to these disparities,” Sawning said. “In the LGBTQI+ patient community, some of these disparities include higher cancer rates and poorer outcomes due to a lack of early detection often due to patients dropping out of the health system because of lack of inclusion or discrimination. Racism permeates every area of medicine, from admissions to leadership positions, to our learning and clinical environments. There is a lot of unlearning and learning that is happening in medical education and that is a very necessary thing to improve patient care and medical training.”  

Sawning plays an active role in facilitating that learning and unlearning. In 2014, while working as director of medical education research and development, she collaborated with her colleagues to create an educational model called eQuality: Leading Medical Education to Deliver Equitable Quality Care for all People, Inclusive of Identity, Development, or Expression of Gender/Sex/Sexuality, and the eQuality Toolkit, a clinical skills primer for healthcare professionals.   

In addition to her work to improve the content for the introductory course, Sawning is also creating content for the medical school’s humanism and compassion in medicine small groups, where groups of students and faculty members meet regularly to discuss topics related to personal and professional identity development. She said the work she’s doing to improve health care education is important to her and hopes it positively impacts students.   

“For me, research is very personal. I am not one to do a project solely for publication. I have to believe that what I am doing will make a difference in some greater way,” she said. “I believe meaningful research will come out of the teaching content we are creating, but for now, I am focused on making sure the content I develop is something that the students will feel changed by in some way.”  

“I love what I do because I believe wholeheartedly that healthcare can be improved by educating the next generation of physicians on various content that they often have not been exposed to prior to medical school. I also love that I get the opportunity to investigate how much students are reflecting on and applying curriculum initiatives. Additionally, I love helping students develop both professionally and personally.”  

Susan Sawning

As a first-generation college student, Sawning said she flourished at MSU because the social work program fosters a sense of community, which she has carried over into her professional life.   

“MSU’s social work program was top-notch. I felt the care of each professor,” she said. “The MSU community, both students and faculty, was so supportive and it was not a teardown, competitive culture,” she said.   

Sawning was mentored by Dr. Mary Carney, former MSU assistant professor of social work, who helped her acquire an internship at Coppin State University, a historically black university in Baltimore. Sawning said she took the internship because she wanted to experience life in a place that was different from where she grew up. She said the experience broadened her worldview and made her more aware of racial injustices. 

“I realize now things that I unfortunately had no awareness of at the time. I went to Baltimore because I wanted to experience the world outside of Appalachia and that is where things fell in place, however, I now understand that me attending an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges or Universities), even for a semester, was not the best for the students at Coppin State. I did not go with a spirit to save or fix, and I did not have awareness at the time that I could be perceived in this way. Rather, I saw Baltimore as a community close to my own, with many similar, though not exact, systemic and structural barriers. We shared an understanding of the importance of community, justice and showing up for each other and that understanding lead to beautiful relationships.” 

When Sawning visited New York City, she decided she wanted to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia University. When she returned to MSU, Sawning said Carney gave her the confidence to apply.  

“I thought she would laugh and tell me I’d never get in there. Instead, she encouraged me to go for it and really nurtured this idea that I had something more to offer this world than securing a paycheck to live on. That was the very first time that someone had said to me that they (Columbia) would be lucky to have me, instead of the other way around. I had never thought about myself in that way before,” she said. “Coming from a working-class family, dreams were not really a thing; it was more of making sure you secured basic needs for yourself and your family as an adult. A few years later, I applied to Columbia and was not only accepted, but they also offered to pay for some of my tuition and offered me an amazing, life-changing internship opportunity with the Social Intervention Group. I have Dr. Carney to thank. Without her mentorship, I never would have applied.”  

For information on MSU’s social work programs, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/sswc.