Denise Martinez named interim associate VP for health parity with UI Health Care

Denise Martinez was named interim associate vice president for health parity with the University of Iowa Health Care earlier this year. She hopes to answer health disparities and improve health care culture and climate at the university.

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Anthony Neri, News Reporter


University of Iowa Health Care named Denise Martinez its first interim associate vice president for health parity following years of working towards equity in health.

She currently works as the associate dean for the Carver College of Medicine’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and as a direct care provider and clinician in the UI Department of Family Medicine.

Martinez will focus on recruitment and retention, culture and climate, health disparities, and relations between patients and providers in her new role, according to an article by the Carver College of Medicine.

“I think that people from historically marginalized groups have not always felt heard by the health care system or that potential bias might exist within that health care system,” Martinez said in an interview with The Daily Iowan.

Health care workers continue to notice the impact of health disparities, Martinez said, which is why she thinks health parity is an important senior-level position that helps reduce those inequities. Addressing health disparities is something that a lot of health systems are working on currently, she said.

“This first year, we are doing a survey of our entire health system to better understand the culture and climate and if people feel that they are valued, based on identities, and based on that survey data … deciding on potential interventions so that all people from every background feel welcomed,” she said.

Martinez said health parity is personally important to her because of her previous life experiences.

“I come from a multi-racial, multi-cultural background,” she said. “I had some of my family members on one side of my family who were really scared to go to the doctor, that maybe they weren’t going to be heard or listened to or treated in a way that was in their best interest.”

Her experiences with her family being hesitant to use health systems inspired her to work in health parity, she said.

In addition to improving relationships between patients and providers, Martinez said she wants to improve recruitment and retention for students, faculty, and staff.

She said there is data showing that staff and faculty diversity — whether ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, geographic, or religious — improves the quality of care for all patients.

“We can’t be truly excellent if we’re not excellent for everyone,” she said.

Martinez said she wanted to invest in programs that will diversify the medical professionals that come out of the UI.

“Historically, medicine has not always been as diverse as it should be, [and] has not always represented our patient populations well,” Martinez said. “So, those pipeline programs are really helpful in helping to continue to diversify who goes into medicine, and who are the folks who treat patients.”

Martinez said COVID-19 has recently exacerbated health disparities, so her initiatives are particularly relevant right now.

Alexander Nance, director of the Office of Patient Experience for UI Health Care, said he has had a great experience working with Martinez. His work involves analyzing data surveys of patients to see how they are treated by their providers, he said.

“[With Martinez,] you can talk about these really challenging things in an open way,” he said. “And she’s really receptive to new ideas, new perspectives and being inclusive of other persons or other areas within the hospital … that need to be looped in and a part of these conversations.”

Nance said Martinez, as a direct care provider, has an intimate understanding of patients and understands the value of her new position.

Both Martinez and Nance said discrimination sometimes comes from patients and have decided to work on creating a respectful environment for staff, as well.

“It’s not obviously all of our patients, but it can be really, really challenging to face that kind of discrimination,” Martinez said. “And so helping to let our patients know, as well, that this is a respectful environment, that we really want everybody to feel respected, that patients feel like they’re getting the best quality of care, that they’re being heard, but also respecting our staff, our learners, and our faculty, is really important.”

Nicole Del Castillo, director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at the Carver College of Medicine, works with Martinez and said she’s excited to see what this new position will bring.

“She has a lot of knowledge within the enterprise and knows where we have been, the initiatives we have done within the college, within UI Health Care, and where we could go forward,” she said.

Castillo said there is currently a diversity, equity, and inclusion position in the Carver College of Medicine, but the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has not had a direct presence in the UI Hospitals and Clinics until now.

Martinez has additionally established the Minority Association of Pre-Health students and worked in the Summer Health Professions Education Program at the UI.

“With MAPS [Minority Association of Pre-Health Students] and SHPEP [Summer Health Professions Education Program], those are all pipeline programs that help folks who are first generation, who are from rural grounds, who are from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine get into medicine,” she said.

Nance said he expects Martinez to be especially capable in her new position, because it is so personal to her.

“She’s a really positive driving force behind this work, because she truly believes in it,” he said.

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