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US Health Care

Mary Bassett: Why your doctor should care about social justice

In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, Mary Bassett witnessed the AIDS epidemic firsthand, and she helped set up a clinic to treat and educate local people about the deadly virus. But looking back, she regrets not sounding the alarm for the real problem: the structural inequities embedded in the world's political and economic organizations, inequities that make marginalized people more vulnerable. These same structural problems exist in the United States today, and as New York City's Health Commissioner, Bassett is using every chance she has to rally support for health equity and speak out against racism. "We don't have to have all the answers to call for change," she says. "We just need courage."

Mary Bassett is fighting what may be the greatest stumbling block to equitable health care in the US: institutional racism.

New York City Public Health Commissioner Mary Bassett has been a health activist since her Radcliffe days of volunteering at a Black Panther Clinic. She began her career on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, a position she held for 17 years. The valuable lessons she learned in Harare, including the development of one of the first HIV awareness programs, gave her a unique perspective in tackling community health challenges for New York City’s diverse populations. She has led the charge to nudge healthier behaviors, including pushing for higher cigarette taxes and banning artificial trans fats in restaurants.

In her current role, she has called for the medical community’s deeper engagement in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and efforts to tackle institutional racism.

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