Dr. Floyd Willis on the importance of inclusive nervous system disorders research
Mayo Clinic cares for patients from all backgrounds who turn to us for hope and healing. Yet systemic racism, discrimination and unconscious bias have had an outsized effect on groups that have been underserved in health care.
In July 2020, Mayo Clinic announced a $100 million commitment to eliminate racism and advance equity and inclusivity over the next decade.
This Black History Month, Mayo Clinic Magazine is highlighting the work of physicians who are working to improve diversity and health equity at Mayo Clinic and beyond.
This article originally appeared on the Mayo Clinic News Network website. Learn more at newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org.
Floyd B. Willis, M.D., has been a practicing family medicine physician for more than 30 years. He's drawn to problem-solving, particularly ones that have a community-wide impact.
"Many describe Alzheimer's and other memory loss diseases as the silent killer," Dr. Willis says. "Black people in America are about twice as likely to get Alzheimer's disease and other memory loss disorders — and there are interesting and complicated reasons behind that.”
Connecting the community to solutions is why he has helped the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Jacksonville, Florida, recruit participants into research studies.
"It's extremely important to understand how we can predict who might get it and, if possible, discover early treatments," Dr. Willis says.
High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease — factors that are also disproportionately higher in Black Americans.
"Often, communities are unaware that treating those chronic diseases and keeping the body healthy also keeps the brain healthy," Dr. Willis says. "It's important that we get this information out, as it may be a way to reduce some of this increased risk for African Americans."
Deeper Cultural Understanding
The Alzheimer's Disease Research Center's outreach in Jacksonville's historically Black communities revealed a deeper understanding of cultural barriers.
"It's key to build trust for someone to reveal all of these very personal things about their mind, their brain, their thought, which some people equate to their spirituality," Dr. Willis says. "Once you can convince people that, yes, you can trust the system, and yes, memory loss is something that we should talk about — it's not just a thing that happens to everyone, as they get older — some of it can be prevented."
In his decades of outreach and advocacy, Dr. Willis says what drives progress is diverse representation — from patients and study participants to researchers and physicians — as well as partnering with the community.
"Involving the community in the work that researchers are doing, asking them what they find important, what they want us to study, and then try to put your priorities in with them," he says.
Michele Halyard, M.D., began her journey as a radiation oncologist at Mayo Clinic 36 years ago. Today, she is recognized as one of the most influential and impactful leaders in the movement toward health equity.
Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua, M.D., is an oncologist with Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center who specializes in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers. He is leading a clinical trial focused on the immigrant African and Asian communities of Minnesota with a high prevalence of one type of liver cancer.
Alyx B. Porter, M.D., a neuro-oncologist at Mayo Clinic, is focused on inspiring and supporting future generations of physicians from historically underrepresented backgrounds, with scholarships, mentorship, leadership development and financial wellness education.