When Kathryn Reed reflects on her time caring for patients as a physician assistant (PA), one story sticks with her, truly illustrating why it is so important for hospitals to employ a diverse group of providers.
In one of her most memorable moments with a patient, Reed was working with a middle-aged Black man who did not want to take his blood pressure medication. Reed reframed the situation as if she were the man’s daughter to explain how she would feel if he died prematurely.
“Being able to draw connections, break down the situation and reframe perspectives is extremely helpful. Additionally, what I said may not have resonated with him if I were white,” said Reed, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Department of Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program and vice chair of equity, inclusion, and community engagement. “I try to engage in a way that will help the patient share their life goals with me. For me, that’s a part of the cultural connection — I know where I can push a little bit and still be respectful. The patient and provider must work together to find some level of commonality to keep the patient healthy and well.”
That memory and other lived experiences are why Reed and Ben Reynolds, chief advanced practice officer at UPMC, are co-leading an initiative between Pitt and UPMC that launched on Juneteenth to recruit more people of color to train to be advanced practice providers (APPs) at Pitt — and perhaps to be hired by UPMC.
“This initiative is crucial for reducing racial disparities, especially within health care,” said Reed. “It is important to have diverse providers as it improves patient outcomes. The hope is that this initiative and others like it will improve equity, health and well-being not only for the Pittsburgh community, but also throughout the nation and world.”
Before pursuing an undergraduate degree from Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in Emergency Medicine, Reed had never heard of the physician assistant career. She had also never encountered an APP who looked like her.
At Pitt, Reed had the opportunity to learn about the range of clinical careers beyond being a nurse or doctor that make up the APP field. Reed worked as a paramedic after obtaining her paramedic certification in the emergency medicine program but found that she wanted to increase her scope of practice and provide preventative care. So she applied to Pitt’s Department of Physician Assistant Studies, where she was accepted.
Reed recalls the experiences that she faced as a Black student while in PA school and working in the clinic, from comments being made about her hair to being dismissed by patients because of her race. Wanting to improve this experience for future PA students and serve as a mentor for Black pre-PA students, she began to cultivate ideas for reaching those goals.
With the support of Dr. David Beck and the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physician Assistant Studies, Reed launched the National Society of Black Physician Assistants (NSBPA) in January 2020. The society includes a mentorship program, virtual shadowing sessions and a student diversity initiative.
“I wanted to provide the mentorship and support that I was looking for throughout my PA education process and post-graduation as a practicing provider,” said Reed. “Serving as a mentor is important — it reminds me of my love for the profession. I enjoy guiding pre-PA and PA students in their educational journeys, but I also know we need to enact systemwide changes to make health care safer and more accessible for everyone.”
The NSBPA’s overarching goals are to diversify the PA student body, create a community of Black PAs, PA students and pre-PAs who use high-quality mentorship to support one another, and combat health disparities stemming from long-standing prejudice and biases.
“Some people who practice medicine and have credentials — M.D., D.O., P.A., N.P. — continue to believe that there are anatomical differences between Black and white people. These biases can cause Black patients’ pain to be undertreated — a clear example of the real harm that is perpetuated by these beliefs,” said Reed. “If we’re ever going to truly reverse that narrative, we need to have more providers who can directly relate to their patients and call their peer providers into the conversation about racism in medicine, especially those who still hold antiquated, racist beliefs.”