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Five Courageous Leaders Tackle Vexing Health Challenges

Jan. 3, 2024

Across Texas and the U.S., health care leaders are tackling challenges contributing to health inequities, from addressing the burden of medical debt to building quality, culturally responsive behavioral health services for patients with minimal resources.

To help local leaders address these challenges boldly in their areas of work, Dell Med’s Office of Health Equity launched Courageous Leadership for Health Improvement in April 2023.

Six people stand in a row, each holding a book titled "Choosing Courage."

Courageous Leadership for Health Improvement’s first cohort. From left: Dave Clarke, Jewel Mullen, Elizabeth Colvin, Sarita Clark-Leach, Kristin Escamilla and Tiffany Ricks.

“On campus and throughout Austin, leaders in all sectors need to develop their individual leadership strengths guided by courage, risk-taking and the strategic skills required to transform systems to achieve health justice,” says Jewel Mullen, M.D., MPH, Dell Med’s associate dean for health equity, who leads the program. “We’ve designed this program to allow leaders a few hours a month to pause from the daily stream of activity and learn those skills.”

The program targets midcareer professionals from various sectors. Content includes two immersive experiences — one in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Equal Justice Institute, the Freedom Riders Museum and the Equal Justice Institute health clinic. A second trip to highlight health issues on the border is planned for April in El Paso.

In addition to immersive experiences, there is also a practicum, directed readings, one-on-one coaching and discussions with national leaders, all of which offer participants an opportunity to explore strategies for problem-solving that influence organizational transformation. Pauline Strong, the office’s health humanities lead, assists with journaling exercises to promote critical thought and self-awareness. 

“Transformative change in health care demands the courage to embrace risk and stand up for compassionate care, which means questioning the existing culture that puts reimbursement and process over people,” says Sarita Clark-Leach, vice president of quality, analytics and performance at Central Health, the safety-net care provider for Travis County. There, she’s spearheading a series of all-staff trainings that instill the principles of compassionate, trauma-informed care throughout the organization, aiming to then measure the impact on the organization’s culture and policies and the patients they serve — as well as the people who serve them. “This program has confirmed for me that it’s not just about the letters after your name; it’s about rising to the occasion and doing the work that’s necessary to advance health equity.”

Building ‘Strong, Durable Roots’

Kristin Escamilla, M.D., is a practicing local psychiatrist and an assistant professor in Dell Med’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The Courageous Leadership curriculum is supporting her in her work to establish an engaging curriculum for teaching medical students and psychiatry residents about public mental health via a unique clinical experience.

“It’s my responsibility to become a leader who people need, a trailblazer who stays in this space so that my students, residents and staff have access to someone whom they feel understands them and advocates for them,” says Escamilla. “I see myself as having strong, durable roots that are going to stay despite the freezes, the floods and the droughts. At times, my leaves might appear to be a little wilted, but I remain strong and steady thanks to what this program has taught me.”

Courageous Leadership for Health Improvement is made possible through philanthropic support. To learn more, contact Sharon Ricks from Dell Med’s Office of Health Equity »

Other 2023 cohort scholars include: Dave Clarke, a board-certified pediatric epileptologist and chief of the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program within UT Health Austin’s Pediatric Neurosciences at Dell Children’s Medical Center; Elizabeth Colvin, a civil rights attorney and the executive director of RAISE Texas, a statewide coalition that is working to ensure that every Texan has the power to build sustainable wealth and prosperity; and Tiffany Ricks, associate dean of nursing at Austin Community College.