Overcoming barriers: Kevin Thomas on building diversity in medicine

Monday, March 27, 2017

Kevin Thomas, MD, associate professor of medicine (Cardiology), holds a long track record in his career that focuses on health disparities and career development. Most of his research career has been dedicated to understanding disparities in science and medicine.

Throughout the years, Dr. Thomas overcame barriers that placed him on the path he is on today.

Before he was “Kevin Thomas the cardiologist,” he was just a boy with a love for basketball growing up in the city of Fort Washington, Md.

Thomas describes his upbringing as difficult. He was 6 years old when his parents divorced. Soon after, it was just Thomas, his older sister, and his mom living together, trying to make ends meet.

Before the divorce, his father was the sole provider of the family. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. After it was decided Thomas and his sister would live with her, his mother worked constantly to support her children.

He remembered the moments when he and his family were on the verge of eviction from their home, when his mom had no car to drive, living in apartments, and moving frequently. Thomas changed elementary schools six times throughout his childhood.

Imagining himself as a sub-specialized cardiologist with a successful research career seemed impossible when he was younger. 

“As a kid, I didn’t really have much of a dream,” he said. “We were just living in the moment, trying to survive…. In my wildest dreams, I never would’ve thought that I would be where I am now.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of life, if he knew anything, he knew his mom loved him and his sister.

“She would always tell us that ‘I’m going to make sacrifices so that you guys have the opportunities to live a better life,’” said Thomas of his mother.

As he got older, he carried his mother's words with him as he went through school. When he graduated high school, Thomas was a National Merit finalist, accepted to Duke University for early-decision with a partial scholarship offer, and was accepted to Emory University with a full academic scholarship, where he took first steps into medicine.

Undergraduate years at Emory University: Advocating for Diversity

As the Duke School of Medicine's Assistant Dean for Underrepresented Faculty Development, Thomas is passionate about creating diverse environments in science and medicine that offer support for the School's underrepresented groups. 

His drive for developing infrastructures to support everyone’s success in science and medicine started during his undergraduate years at Emory University.

At the time, in Emory’s undergraduate enrollment of 4,500, there were only 70 African Americans, including Thomas.

As an undergraduate, he saw there weren’t many resources supporting underrepresented groups. All around him, he witnessed other black students struggling with their classes like he was.

For Thomas, it wasn’t that he and the other students weren’t equipped for Emory’s academic challenges, but rather they lacked personal support. Campus organizations such as the university’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the Minority Pre-Med Society were fine, but he said he knew improvements needed to be made.

The Emory BSA and other black students rallied together and marched to the university’s administration. The group presented their concerns to Emory’s administration with GPA statistics to back up their proposal for a more supportive infrastructure.

“There wasn’t a lot of positive feedback that came from the administration,” said Thomas. “We just kind of took matters into our own hands and said, ‘if they’re not going help us, then we’ll do the best we can to help ourselves.’ I think it unified us…We didn’t immediately see the benefits of our actions, but I think it probably helped the people that came behind us.

“Although I didn’t have a great experience when I was there, when I meet people and talk to people who have come through Emory since then, their experience is a lot better.”

At an Emory Minority Pre-Med Society meeting, Thomas met one of his first mentors in medicine and a longtime friend, Larry Keith, MD.

 “We're all going to have that moment, but you have to recognize that moment...There was something about him that brought something out in me that said, 'This is something that I can do.'"

Kevin Thomas, MD

Dr. Keith was the associate director of the Office of Educational Development and director of special programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

When he approached Thomas, Keith asked, “What are you doing over the summer?”

When Thomas responded that he would be working at his father’s trucking company, Keith encouraged him to participate in the 8-week “Medical Education Development (MED)” summer program instead of going home.

After Thomas participated in the program, he said that it made him a “better student.” Although he did well in academics, his study habits were flawed.

“He passed away a few years ago but when I think about him, just one person changed my life significantly,” said Thomas. “We're all going to have that moment, but you have to recognize that moment...There was something about him that brought something out in me that said, 'This is something that I can do.'”

Keith and others gave Thomas the motivation to believe that he could achieve his long-term goals with success.

Loving his experience so much at UNC Chapel Hill, Thomas returned for medical school.

Throughout most of his time in medical school, Thomas worked with Keith to recruit minorities across the country and specifically at historically black colleges and universities because of his positive experience and mentorship. 

Thomas even moved forward to became a teaching assistant for the MED program, mentoring and supporting a broad group of underrepresented students.

During his time at medical school, he also took a year off participating in the National Institutes of Health program, “Research Educational Support.” In the program, he worked in the lab of Frederick Sparling, MD, who was the Chair of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill, to develop a vaccine candidate for chancroid, a sexually transmitted disease commonly associated with the transmission of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ultimate goal was to impact the AIDS epidemic common in Africa. Chancroid creates genital ulcers that increase the rate of AIDS transmission. 

Through their research efforts, the project was accepted for presentation at an international research conference for sexually transmitted diseases in Spain, and ultimately resulted in Thomas’s first scientific publication.

That year of science and exploration ignited Thomas' passion for research.

His Career in Research and Medicine Now

With this in mind, Thomas began his internal medicine residency training at Duke University in 1999 because of the program’s research opportunities. His first published project as a resident was about coronary heart disease patients and its relation to race and ethnicity.

“That kind of opened my eyes to the field of healthcare disparities and the fact that, based on the color of a person's skin, you could have different healthcare outcomes,” Thomas said. “I wanted to try and contribute as much as I can to that field. I want to understand why these differences or these disparities in healthcare exist. Why as a black man your life expectancy is 10 years less than a white woman?"

Now, he runs a multidisciplinary research group dedicated to health disparities, primarily in cardiology.

“There's a whole body of research that needs to be done. Okay, we described what disparities and differences exist, but why? How can we reduce these differences,” Thomas said. “There's still a lot of work to be done but based on the work that we do know, we know that the reasons are complicated. It's multiple things that are contributing to these disparities in care and outcomes.”

He added that with his research, he ultimately wants to create interventions to eliminate the disparities he finds through methodologically rigorous, meaningful testing.

“It's not something that's on everyone's radar and not everyone sees value in it. Even in my own research career a lot of people have told me, ‘don't limit yourself to focusing on health disparities,’” said Thomas. “My rebuttal to that is always 'Well if I don't elevate this and make this something that's important, who else will?' That's why I'm so passionate about it. It's my opportunity to make the biggest impact on science, how we treat patients, and how care is delivered.”

With Laura Svetkey, MD, vice chair for Faculty Development, professor of medicine (Nephrology) and director of Clinical Research at the Sarah W. Stedman Nutrition and Metabolism Center, and Kimberly Johnson, MD, associate professor of medicine (Geriatrics), Thomas teaches the Duke Health Disparities Research Curriculum, a health disparities research curriculum for medical students and residents at Duke. The curriculum has existed for almost two years.

“What I don’t want is to see people who have talent, ambition and goals become frustrated because they’re not getting to where they want to be.”

 Kevin Thomas, MD

One of the main goals of the curriculum is to give trainees the proper knowledge to conduct disparities research, and to ensure their learning experiences are translated into their respective fields.

Another program with an initiative to encourage others' success is the Bridging the Gap to Enhance Clinical Research Program (BIGGER), which is a 6-month NIH funded clinical research experience for students in their gap year prior to medical school or graduate school. The BIGGER program is under the leadership of Thomas and Vivian Chu, MD, associate professor of medicine (Infectious Diseases).

Students who are graduating undergraduate seniors or recent graduates are eligible to apply. The program is planned to start June 15, 2017.

The BIGGER program has three goals: To attract diverse, talented students to careers in science; to foster a better understanding of clinical research and its implications; and to provide opportunities for students to gain valuable research experience in preparation for a health professions career.

Each year, six students will be chosen. The program will be focusing some of its recruitment on underrepresented groups from area universities (the Triangle area extending to Greensboro), including N.C. Central University, Shaw University, North Carolina A & T University, Bennett College, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University.

As a successful mentor, Thomas uses past experiences as a foundation when he helps mentees and others with similar struggles he had in his medical career.

Thomas said his new role as Assistant Dean for Underrepresented Faculty Development in the School of Medicine has been great so far.

“I knew there was a need, but until I got into this role, I didn’t really appreciate how much of a need there was,” Thomas said.

And because support in faculty development is in high-demand, he has had many people reach out to him about their struggles or other things they’ve needed help with.

He said “those moments are really important and very gratifying.”

In this position, Thomas has a lot of one-on-one sessions with residents and faculty for mentorship and support.

He has to think about how the support and opportunities he gives others will help in the future and for generations to come. For Thomas, it’s about making a difference and making that difference sustainable.

He is currently working on creating a year-long leadership program to give career development opportunities for underrepresented groups.

“What I don’t want is to see people who have talent, ambition and goals become frustrated because they’re not getting to where they want to be,” he said. “That’s why I see my role as being able to help people get to where they want to be.”

This story was written by Tia Mitchell, communications intern for the Department of Medicine.