Race and Medicine

Race and Medicine


Healio Interview

Disclosures: Burtness reports no relevant financial disclosures.
October 08, 2021
3 min read

In new role, oncologist aims to build ‘foundations of a culture’ that ensures equality


Healio Interview

Disclosures: Burtness reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Barbara Burtness, MD, understands that — in the medical profession — a culture of inclusion and diversity doesn’t just happen. It must be learned.

In her new role as interim associate director for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Yale Cancer Center, she wants to help teach it.

A quote from Barbara Burtness, MD

“The NCI has been pointing out that, when we think about our legacy to future generations, it shouldn’t just be a cancer workforce,” Burtness told Healio. “It should be a cancer workforce that is diverse and inclusive and engaged with all of our communities.”

Burtness, a HemOnc Today Editorial Board member, aims to foster an environment in which diverse medical school, residency and fellowship applicants see their own cultures represented among faculty and leadership.

“The first thing we want to be sure of is that we are building the foundations of a culture that can treat everyone equally,” Burtness said. “A big part of the role is going to be recruitment and retention efforts. There are a lot of strategies we are working on for that, but the most important thing is to ensure that the culture newly recruited people find at our cancer center is fair, welcoming and respectful. It will be difficult to make real progress over time without making sure our culture is truly inclusive.”

‘A nationwide challenge’

Burtness joined Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital in 2014, serving as professor of medicine, co-leader of the developmental therapeutics program, and the disease aligned research team leader for the head and neck cancers program.

She has been committing during her time at Yale to promoting a more equitable environment — both at the institution and across the field.

She has served on the executive committee of the Status of Women in Medicine (SWIM) since 2015, represented SWIM on the Faculty Advisory Council and served as a member of the Dean’s Climate Working Group.

On a national level, Burtness serves as chair of the Task Force on Advancement for Women for the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group. She also has successfully mentored numerous trainees and faculty members.

“A lot of my background in the administrative aspect centers around gender equity, but clearly as we look at the risks of exclusion or inequitable treatment, all of those apply just as much — if not to an even greater degree — to people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds or those whose opportunities might be affected by their sexuality or a disability,” she said. “This is not confined to our institution — this is a nationwide challenge.”

Leadership and innovation

Burtness’ appointment as interim associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion took effect in June.

The idea for the position came about when oncologist Harriet M. Kluger, MD, Yale Cancer Center’s associate director for training and education, assembled a committee devoted to broadening recruitment for oncology trainees.

“In the deliberations of that committee, it became clear that it’s hard to be attractive as an institution to a diverse group of trainees if they don’t see that commitment [to diversity] reflected at the faculty and leadership level,” Burtness said. “So, it was Dr. Kluger who called for the establishment of an associate director to take this on more broadly.”

Kluger noted the issue of diversity and equity at the cancer center should not be confined only to recruitment and training. She approached Nita Ahuja, MD, MBA, FACS, the cancer center’s interim director and interim physician-in-chief at Smilow Cancer Hospital, with the idea of starting an initiative that would span all aspects of the cancer center’s operations.

“Nita is a person who has had a long career track record of advancing equity,” Burtness said. “She was extremely enthusiastic about creating this position.”

Ahuja expressed tremendous enthusiasm about the impact Burtness will have in her new role.

“Dr. Burtness’ leadership and innovative ideas will ensure that we emphasize an inclusive culture, with increased diversity in our workforce — including trainees, staff and faculty — and help to foster the career advancements of all members of our diverse community,” Ahuja said in a Yale-issued press release. “Dr. Burtness will help lead our community in implementing initiatives to enhance the culture of belonging at Yale Cancer Center, including programs and training in cultural and structural humility, stigma and discrimination, and sexual harassment.”

Equitable recruitment efforts will be an important step toward achieving this culture of inclusion, Burtness said.

“We are firmly committed to the recruitment of diverse groups of both clinical and basic/translational cancer researchers,” she said.


Barbara Burtness named interim associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion at Yale Cancer Center. medicine.yale.edu/news-article/barbara-burtness-named-interim-associate-director-for-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-at-yale-cancer-center. Published June 22, 2021. Accessed Sept. 30, 2021.

For more information:

Barbara Burtness, MD, can be reached at Yale School of Medicine, 333 Cedar St., New Haven, CT 06510; email: barbara.burtness@yale.edu.