Celebrating Black History and Advancing Health Equity for Safer Patient Care

Posted on by Mia Frederick and Brittney Foster
Dr. TaRessa Wills
Dr. TaRessa Wills


February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the contributions and experiences of African Americans throughout United States history. This year, CDC’s Project Firstline had the privilege of speaking with Dr. TaRessa Wills, a Black female physician, about what the observance means to her and the importance of advancing health equity to make health care safer for all.

Black Americans’ Contributions to Health Care are an Important Part of American History

To start the conversation, Dr. Wills emphasized the uniqueness of the African American story and how it has shaped our shared national identity. It’s important to recognize and remember those who dedicated their lives to bring us together, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose fight for justice laid the groundwork for greater access to racial and health equity. However, she noted there are still many overlooked figures and narratives that need to be elevated.

Dr. Wills highlighted the contributions of pioneering Black doctors like Rebecca Lee Crumpler and James McCune Smith, the first Black female and male physicians in the U.S., as sources of inspiration for her own career.

Representation Matters

Dr. Wills noted the growing body of evidence to support that Black patients often have better outcomes when treated by Black providers – which she has seen personally in her work. [1] Structural and institutional racism are common obstacles to ensuring equitable care for all patients. One recommendation to help address health disparities is through growing a more diverse provider workforce that better represents the patient populations in their communities. As a member of the Black community, Dr. Wills can more easily identify and connect with her patients while sharing scientifically accurate information and modeling positive healthcare interactions.

Dr. Wills spoke passionately about her role as an advocate who takes time to understand patients’ lived experiences and rectify false assumptions in their medical charts so they can receive the best care possible. “There’s all of this language in a medical chart that speaks to a more negative tone of what’s going on with this individual patient who identifies as black, which can carry forth and perpetuate falsehood about them, which can go into how that patient’s treated.” For example, a patient’s chart could note they are chronically late for appointments, not following through with their home care plan, or not taking their medications as prescribed. But having an unbiased conversation with the patient may illuminate barriers preventing them from following through on their care, such as transportation issues, cost of medications, or even language or cultural differences.

With an understanding of a patient’s specific situation, providers can then work with their patients to create a more customized approach that will hopefully keep them safe from infections and lead to better long-term outcomes. She stressed the importance of building trust with her patients, meeting them where are they are, and connecting with them through shared cultural experiences and faith-based thinking.

Prioritizing Infection Prevention and Control

When you consider other factors that contribute to positive healthcare interactions, infection control is also a critical part of building trust in safer care and improving patient outcomes. We asked Dr. Wills to share how infection control impacts her approach to patient care.

She commented that sometimes marginalized communities, especially black and undocumented peoples who are uninsured, will need quicker solutions or emergency treatment to address chronic health issues.  For example, an uninsured person needing dialysis may go to the emergency room for treatment, as opposed to someone who is an established patient at a facility receiving a care plan with regularly scheduled appointments and treatment. “People aren’t taking time to talk to them and educate them about their options.” The variability in care patients receive and the time spent waiting in the emergency room creates a possibility of excess risk for infection or illness.

She also mentioned, “If you’re talking about the spread of respiratory diseases, there are increased infection risks when [patients] come in – and there is risk of them [patients] going back to their communities and spreading it around.” CDC provides recommendations and resources on how healthcare providers can implement infection control measures within their facilities to help stop the spread of germs and protect patients and others from infections. Relevant infection control measures may include hand hygiene, masking for source control, screening and triaging, use of personal protective equipment, and cleaning and disinfection, among others. It’s also important to talk to patients and educate them about what they can do once they leave the facility to limit spread of potential infections.

Dr. Wills underscored the importance of recognizing these inherent challenges within the system and working to overcome the gaps to provide inclusive care for all patients.

Achieving Health Equity

To advance health equity, we must identify and reduce the barriers to safe patient care for black patients and educate staff on culturally appropriate solutions. In her approach, Dr. Wills noted that she sees every patient as having the opportunity to improve their health and wellbeing regardless of what they look like or their previous experiences. She guides patients to make lifestyle changes and treatment choices that will improve their health on their own terms. Her empathy and cultural dexterity play a crucial role in her ability to connect with patients on a deep, emotional level for personalized care. This enables Dr. Wills to better assess her patient’s needs and tailor her care accordingly.

Kindness Always Wins

Overall, Dr. Wills’ message is one of kindness – to healthcare providers and most importantly their patients. While change is still needed, individual acts of understanding and compassion can make a real difference. “…I absolutely love what I do. I love the ability to help endorse wellness. I have the ability to help people know that they are loved. We care about you…I love being a part of that journey. I love being a part of their individual discoveries of health care and wellness.”

As we recognize Black History Month, Dr. Wills’ words are a stirring reminder that health care is about serving human beings in all their complexity. This principle is especially pertinent as it relates to healthcare equity, personalized care, and infection control. In celebrating black leaders like Dr. Wills, we are inspired by the commitment to these principles. Though the work is far from finished, Project Firstline is committed to elevating the stories of those on the frontlines and providing the education and training needed to make health care safer for all.

[1] Peek ME. Increasing Representation of Black Primary Care Physicians—A Critical Strategy to Advance Racial Health Equity. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(4):e236678. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.6678



Dr. TaRessa Wills earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA followed by her Doctorate of Medicine from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. She completed her Internal Medicine residency in the United States Army at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. She transitioned her military career from the United States Army as a Major to solely civilian medicine in 2017. Dr. Wills is currently a board-certified Internal Medicine physician who joined Emory University School of Medicine faculty as an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Emory Division of Hospital Medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital in 2019.  Clinically, she fervently delivers compassionate, direct care to Atlanta’s most vulnerable populations and strives to educate internal medicine residents, medical students and physician assistant students on how to integrate cultural competence and empathetic kindness in patient care. She holds interests in diversity, equity, inclusion and racial advocacy and enjoys reading and spending time with family and friends. Dr. Wills extends her service to the community as a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.



Mia Frederick (contractor, TANAQ) is a writer for CDC’s Project Firstline in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

Brittney Foster (contractor, St. John’s Group/Tanaq) is a senior health communications specialist for CDC’s Project Firstline in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

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One comment on “Celebrating Black History and Advancing Health Equity for Safer Patient Care”

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    I had the opportunity today to read this insightful blog post, “Celebrating Black History and Advancing Health Equity for Safer Patient Care.” The eloquent exploration of the intersection between Black history, healthcare equity, and infection control is both enlightening and inspiring.

    Dr. TaRessa Wills’s invaluable perspectives illuminates the crucial role of representation and empathy in healthcare. Dr. Wills’s dedication to understanding patients’ lived experiences and advocating for equitable care underscores the profound impact of compassionate healthcare professionals.

    As we commemorate Black History Month, we echo Dr. Wills’s message of kindness and compassion in healthcare. Through individual acts of understanding and advocacy, we can collectively work towards building a healthcare system that prioritizes the well-being of every individual.

    We applaud Mia Frederick and Brittney Foster for their dedication to amplifying diverse voices and shedding light on critical healthcare topics. Their contributions serve as a testament to the power of storytelling in driving meaningful change.

    Thank you, Mia Frederick and Brittney Foster, for your unwavering commitment to advancing health equity and celebrating Black history. We look forward to collaborate and promote your insight in our shared pursuit of a healthier, more inclusive future.

    Warm regards,

    Shekhar Kumar
    The Business Scan Magazine

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Page last reviewed: March 14, 2024
Page last updated: March 14, 2024