5 Questions with William Turner on Diversity in Medicine

February 22, 2019

Internist William Turner, MD, has been at Columbia University Irving Medical Center for more than two decades, but he still remembers the day he interviewed for a residency spot in the Department of Medicine.

“I had the honor of meeting Dr. Gerald Thomson and Dr. Kenneth Forde, and I felt I was standing on the shoulders of giants,” Turner said recently at the VP&S Awards for Excellence ceremony, where he was presented with an award for his efforts to recruit residents from underrepresented groups to Columbia’s internal medicine residency.

William Turner, MD

“Here I was with physicians, leaders in their fields, who had already been here for decades, and that really speaks to Columbia’s longstanding commitment to diversity, excellence, and inclusivity.”

Turner says he always had Columbia in his mind, even as a child growing up in Brooklyn. “I think I was one of those kids who always thought he's going to be a doctor. My Dad's a general internist, and seeing how he practiced medicine, how his patients revered him, and how he carried himself as a physician had a very strong influence on me. He was actually trained by Dr. Thomson at King's County many decades ago, so I grew up hearing about Dr. Thomson and about Columbia.”

After completing his residency at Columbia, Turner has risen through the ranks; he’s now associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

One thing has remained constant since his intern days: his efforts to continue the department’s tradition in recruiting medical students from diverse backgrounds to medicine.

“I came here with that foundation, and then during residency and afterward, I’ve just done what I can to help,” he says.

What attracted you to Columbia?

To me, Columbia has that perfect blend of being a tertiary and quaternary referral center where people come from all over the world for care, but it is really a community hospital for an otherwise underserved neighborhood. Having grown up in New York, I was attracted to Columbia knowing that I would be able to help very vulnerable populations in the city. The second most important reason was the diversity in the house staff. I was very personally inspired to meet individuals like Drs. Thomson and Forde on the day I interviewed here, and to learn about the rich history in diversity and inclusivity that Columbia had had for decades before I arrived. 

At the time I interviewed in the 90s, about 25 percent of medicine residents were from underrepresented minority groups, mainly through the efforts of Dr. John Lindenbaum and Dr. Peter Gordon. That was unheard of at the time for internal medicine programs at Ivy League schools.

What keeps you here?

I’m a hospitalist, which means I’m a general internist who specializes in taking care of and diagnosing folks who are admitted to the hospital. 

One of the reasons I love my job so much is because almost all of my patients come through the emergency room, so most are from the neighborhood. I feel like I'm a community doctor for Harlem and Washington Heights. That's what attracted me here as an intern and has kept me here basically ever since then.

It's a really rewarding job because I have the honor of delivering general medical care to patients and am comforted knowing I have an incredible cavalry of nationally renowned specialists to turn to when necessary.

What’s your personal role in recruiting residents?

About a year before I arrived here, several medicine residents had started the Lindenbaum-Thomson Society, which is an organization by and for residents of color who wanted to do their part to make Columbia as inviting and inclusive an atmosphere as we could. A major thrust was to have a strong recruiting operation. It was always a grassroots effort, and as a resident, I was very involved in those efforts. 

Now as a faculty member, I try to interview as many of the applicants from underrepresented groups that I can during the cycle and do my best to personally recruit folks here. We have a small core of underrepresented faculty members in the department who really counsel and teach and try to recruit minority members. I've had the honor of being one of that group for 20 years now.

Once residents are here, I try my best to create an environment that’s comfortable and safe and educationally enriching: a place where people could really grow and be their best selves.

What methods have been successful in attracting residents from underrepresented groups to Columbia’s residency in medicine?  

I think one of our most successful strategies has been personalizing our recruitment strategies. Over the years our residency director, the chair, and even the dean, along with multiple residents, have called individual applicants to see if they have questions and to really reinforce all the reasons we think training here is so special. We would open up our own homes to entertain and socialize with applicants when they came for a visit. That intimacy, I think, was very attractive for a lot of applicants.

What's funny to me is that over the last couple of years, we're finding that the phone calls aren't received as popularly as they once were. People are so used to texting now, I think some folks can be put off a bit when you call. Many of them would rather get an email or a text, so it's harder to reach out the way we used to. 

I think one of the bigger breakthroughs that we experienced in the last 20 years was to be more open-minded about applicants’ medical schools. We started to recruit medical students from a wider range of schools and we looked at students much more holistically. We didn't concentrate solely on GPA and board scores, but we really looked at their interest in the program, their background, what we thought they could do, and how they'd fit into the Columbia community and the larger neighborhood. We were proud of recruiting not just the best applicants “on paper” but folks we thought were “diamonds in the rough” and whose personal qualities and stories would predict them being particularly competent and humanistic physicians.

Why should new physicians from underrepresented groups come here for residency?

You get the best of both worlds here. You get this top-notch, internationally renowned facility and faculty while you're able to take care of patients who, by and large, look like you and probably have a similar background. There's no question that it helps the therapeutic alliance when you feel a personal bond or affinity, for whatever reason, toward your provider. As I recall there are pretty good studies dating back to the 90s that have shown that the quality of care is enhanced when you're serving a community that's similar to yours.

That's one of the strongest arguments for why we think that having a more diverse faculty, residency group, and medical student body helps.

William C. Turner, MD, with Donald Landry, MD, PhD, far left, R. Graham Barr, MD, DrPH, second from left, and Lee Goldman, MD, far right
William C. Turner, MD, with Donald Landry, MD, PhD, far left, R. Graham Barr, MD, DrPH, second from left, and Lee Goldman, MD, far right (Photo: Amelia Panico)