Alumni Profile:

Maximum Impact

Distinguished Alumnus Uncovers Inequities in Heart Health

by Bridget M. Kuehn

Richard Gillum, ’70 MD

As the first African-American internal medicine intern at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston, and the only black student in his medical school class at Northwestern, Richard Gillum, ’70 MD, has played a pioneering role in the field of medicine.

His career has not only led the way for other African-American physicians, but also helped to reveal how social determinants of health can greatly impact heart disease. In recognition of his many contributions, Gillum, an adjunct professor of medicine at Howard University College of Medicine, received Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Distinguished Medical Alumnus/a Award presented at Alumni Weekend in April. 

“Northwestern provided a quality education and a credential that has opened doors for me throughout my career,” Gillum says. Learning from faculty like Jeremiah Stamler, MD, professor emeritus of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Epidemiology, also inspired him to specialize in cardiovascular epidemiology. He noted that the growing emphasis on prevention in cardiology over the last half century has led to dramatic declines in heart disease-related deaths, a public health aim that Stamler championed. 

Cardiology offers much to patients, but almost no heart disease is curable,” explains Gillum, who earned a master’s degree in epidemiology at Harvard University after completing his cardiology training at Brigham. “Prevention based on evidence from epidemiology offered me an opportunity for greater impact than clinical medicine.”

SOCIAL DETERMINANTS

Researching cardiovascular epidemiology, first at the National Institutes of Health, then at the University of Minnesota, and later the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics, put Gillum at the forefront of discoveries about disparities in heart health. He has authored more than 300 publications on how factors such as socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic disparities, and leisure time activity modulate heart risks. 

Those of us who were privileged to obtain training in cardiology needed to assertively seek to expose to full view disparities that were not widely acknowledged and to open doors to training closed by custom, if not law.

“The research process has been a gratifying endeavor as each discovery led to new questions and opportunities to find answers,” he says.

Gillum served as a consultant on the ground-breaking Meharry Cohort Study launched in the early 1980s at Meharry Medical College, a historically black university in Nashville. The study followed more than 300 black physicians and some 600 white physicians for decades and yielded insights on the incidence and risk factors for cardiovascular disease in black individuals of higher socio-economic status. Many other longitudinal studies at the time enrolled only white patients or only black patients who were of lower socio-economic status.

“Dr. Gillum influenced [research on disparities in health] way before it was popular,” notes John Fontaine, MD, MBA, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC). Gillum and Fontaine serve together on the editorial board of the Journal of the National Medical Association, a peer-reviewed publication
dedicated to reducing health inequity especially among African Americans and other minority groups. “Dr. Gillum has covered the spectrum of educational activities and services that really goes well beyond what most physicians have done in their careers,” Fontaine says.

Tackling Disparities

In addition to a prolific research career, Gillum, who studied writing during his medical training, has been an outspoken advocate against discrimination in medicine. He believes that “physicians and poets have a social responsibility to comment on their times.”

In 1974, Gillum joined 16 other likeminded physicians to found the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC). They launched the organization — now with 1,800 members — to tackle cardiovascular disease in minority patients and boost diversity in the field of cardiology with mentoring and support for subspecialty training.

  “Even with the civil rights movement well under way at that time, it was clear that removing legal barriers to advancement of minorities was insufficient to eliminate racial inequity in health and access to care,” Gillum says. “Those of us who were privileged to obtain training in cardiology needed to assertively seek to expose to full view disparities that were not widely acknowledged and to open doors to training closed by custom, if not law.”

Gillum has been gratified to see growing numbers of black cardiologists. He acknowledges, though, there remains much more to do to eliminate disparities in healthcare. Political and global economic trends along with a history of discrimination in the United States continue to stymie progress in his opinion. “Without continued advocacy, farsighted leadership and political will another 40 years will pass without meaningful change toward equalizing educational and economic opportunities and access to care,” Gillum says.

In the meantime, there is much individual physicians can do to help their patients be as healthy as possible.

“I urge physicians to resist being so enthralled by technology that they devote insufficient priority to prevention,” he says. Active in his Methodist church, Gillum also encourages health providers to “not ignore the spiritual aspects of health and well-being important to many, if not most, patients.”