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A passion for saving lives, being a voice for health equity

Through his words, Italo Brown’s accomplishments and his actions as an advocate for equity in health care, he has embraced the challenge of rising to the name and its expectations.

When I first spoke with Italo Brown, a Stanford Medicine emergency medicine physician, I was curious about the origin of his first name.

It's West African, he told me, and it means valor. When he was born, he said, his parents hoped the name would be a self-fulfilling prophecy and he'd grow into it.

He has. Through his words, his accomplishments and his actions as an advocate for equity in health care, Brown has embraced the challenge of rising to the name and its expectations.

I interviewed Brown for an article, "Broken trust: A history of atrocities," in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine on racial inequity in medicine and health care.

A voice for the voiceless

As we talked about his family, his upbringing and his passion for being a voice for more equality and equity in health care, I asked him about his philosophy of being "a river to his people," and what that meant to him.

"It means to be somebody who, with everything that you get, everything that you receive, you flood it to the communities that you come from, to the people who have no access to it," he said. "To be a reservoir, a tributary, is living up to your ultimate potential."

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, he became particularly aware of a "vast disconnect between accurate information and what my community was receiving."

"That's why it's important to me to be a river to one's people," he said. "It's a constant reminder of why I'm in the health care space -- because tons of people sacrificed, died, prayed and invested for me to be able to do this."

Brown, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Stanford, is the leader of the medical school's effort to incorporate learning materials that advance the principles of equity and social justice into the medical school curriculum.

Building trust in medicine

In this world of disinformation and mistrust, Brown is exercising a role as a change agent within the medical world, hoping to start new doctors off free of racist preconceptions and to build trust among Black people in health care and medicine.

He understands the immensity of that challenge, considering past medical atrocities against Black people. Brown said he was a teenager when learned from his father about the Tuskegee syphilis study -- a medical experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 on Black men with syphilis who were told they were receiving treatment but were not.

"I think about it often because these were men probably around my age watching their bodies go through something they didn't understand," he told me. "They trusted wholeheartedly that the right things were occurring."

Brown expressed frustration when people tell him it's time to move past that and other abuses: "You've got to put this behind you and just move forward."

"Actually, no we don't," Brown told me.

"This is something that needs to be addressed. You can't continue to act as though it didn't happen," he said. "Sweeping it under the rug doesn't give anyone a feeling of true justice. It doesn't instill trust. It actually deepens mistrust."

Photo of Italo Brown, MD, by Brown

Read the full Q&A with Italo Brown, MD, here.

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