Trojan trailblazer champions diversity at Keck School of Medicine of USC

Looking back on her junior high and high school years in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s, Donna Elliott recalls the education being outdated, with boys and girls often taking different courses based on expectations about their gender.

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“In junior high school, girls did home economics and boys did shop because people thought that girls needed to know how to cook and boys needed to fix things,” said Elliott, a native Angeleno. “And in high school, I did gymnastics and ballet because that’s what the girls did.”

That is not to say that Elliott thought she was destined to take on traditional female roles, such as being a housewife. Her parents, both civil rights activists who fought for more rights and opportunities for people of color in Los Angeles, let her know that she could shoot for the moon.

Her mother was a trailblazer herself, an African American woman who broke through many barriers in both business and health care.

Following her mother’s example

Elliott’s mother was one of three African American women in her class at the Los Angeles County hospital nursing program. She went on to start her own business. While she managed to break gender and racial barriers in both business and health care, it was not without struggle. Elliott said her mother taught her only daughter that success is possible, but it is still harder for women and people of color.

“She often said that you have to work twice as hard to earn half the recognition,” said Elliott.

Fortunately, Elliott never retreated from hard work. She was a stellar student in high school, which earned her admission to USC as an undergraduate where she was, again, a stand-out student. This time, her high marks earned her a spot at the highly rated medical school at USC.

There were just upward of 130 students in her class at what is now the Keck School of Medicine of USC, only 30 of whom were female. Elliott was one of only three young women of color in that class. It wasn’t long before the sexist jabs and, sometimes, outright insults began. Title IX had passed several years before she began medical school, but attitudes don’t always change as quickly as the law.

“We heard it all — that girls should be in the kitchen and not in medical school,” recalled Elliott. Thanks to her mother, Elliott knew exactly what to do in the face of a slight, whether from a male resident or a fellow student: Put your head down and work harder than anyone else.

Diversity matters in medicine

After medical school and completing her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric nephrology at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, Elliott joined the faculty of the Keck School of Medicine in 1989. In 2000, she was appointed an assistant dean of student affairs, dean of student affairs in 2007 and vice dean of medical education in 2018.

Over more than two decades of working in student affairs, Elliott has always made admitting and nurturing a diverse student body a core part of her mission. She noted that women now make up more than 50% of the students at the Keck School of Medicine and students from groups underrepresented in medicine make up just over a quarter of the student body, a major change since her days as a medical student at USC.

And while Title IX may have guaranteed young women more spots in graduate education, the law is not the only reason Elliott and the other leaders of the medical school want the doctors of the future to be more diverse. In the years since Title IX passed, numerous studies have proven that diversity among doctors improves the practice of medicine.

“The literature shows that doctors make better decisions when diverse ideas, diverse backgrounds come together to look at a particular problem,” said Elliott.

When it comes to female doctors, noted Elliott, there have been studies that show women spend more time, in general terms, with their patients and communicate better, which can lead to better outcomes for their patients. And while women have made significant strides in medicine since the passage of Title IX, Elliott noted that there is still more work to be done.

“There are undoubtedly many more female doctors, medical school deans and hospital CEOs than 50 years ago,” said Elliott. “It has gotten better, but there is still a way to go.”

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