Denise Martinez: Diversity, culture, and the glass ceiling

Denise Martinez

Denise Martinez was five years old when she decided to become a doctor.

“My mom had just had my baby sister, and I thought, ‘Gosh, how cool that this doctor got to bring my sister into the world!’" says Martinez, MD, a family medicine physician. “I was always a really nerdy kid. I had lots of nerdy things like microscopes and rock collections. I thought there's nothing better I could do than become a doctor one day.”

Martinez remembers two great medical role models: her primary care doctor, who was full of grace and compassion, and a straight-talking family friend, who was a surgeon.

“He looked at me one Thanksgiving and said, ‘You should be a doctor,’” she recalls.

Martinez followed her childhood dream. But during her freshman year of college, her advisor told Martinez she’d never get into medical school.

“To discount people, especially from underrepresented identities who often don't have folks in their family to help them navigate, was really disappointing,” she says. “Today when I work with students, I tell them if somebody discourages you in the same way that I was discouraged to get a second opinion."

Seeing the world through a cultural lens

After her junior year in college, Martinez applied to a summer program at the University of Washington, a program for minority premed students to help them get into medical school.

“My family is of Puerto Rican descent, but were raised in Hawaii,” she says. “We have this really interesting Latinx identity.”

During Hispanic Heritage Month in September, Martinez says it’s important to recognize the immense contributions Latinx people have made and continue to make to our country.

“We can celebrate the diversity that helps to create cultures that are really beautiful,” says Martinez, who is also associate dean for cultural affairs and diversity initiatives in the UI Carver College of Medicine.

To provide the best care for patients from different backgrounds, Martinez teaches others about cultural competency and cultural humility.

“It’s a continual learning process of how one's lens influences them, how they live, their health care, and how we can best take care of folks who have different kinds of lenses,” she says.

“We know here in the United States, there is implicit bias and that racial health disparities are huge. Having providers know how to work with and learn from patients from different backgrounds is really important.”

In recognition of her scholarly achievements, mentoring excellence, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Martinez was recently selected as one of 100 inspiring Hispanic/Latinx scientists in America.

“When you have different people from different backgrounds, then different ideas, different perspectives, and different answers are found,” she says. “Having inclusion and diversity is critical and we know that will lead to better discoveries and better ideas going forward.”

A seat at the table

The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that women will comprise 50 percent of all future physicians.

“However, one of the places that we see the largest disparity is in leadership,” says Martinez. “When it comes to the thought leaders, even though we have this huge pipeline, there's such a ceiling to how far you can go within the leadership to make those influential decisions.”

While Martinez is encouraged that so many women can contribute and provide care, she says there’s much work that needs to be done around leadership equity.

She is excited to be co-chair of the new UI Health Care Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force.

“Having women’s voices at the table brings different ideas and perspectives,” she says. “Women often are seen as sort of caretakers and we also can be amazing leaders as well.”

A full life in Iowa

As a west-coast native, Iowa didn’t originally figure into Martinez’s career plans, but she loved UI Hospitals & Clinics and was and is amazed by all the nice people in the state.

When not at work, Martinez enjoys spending time with her husband, their son Zane, her parents, and her sister, who works here at the University of Iowa.

“We love to travel and eat great food,” she says. “My husband and I enjoy planning trips and exploring while finding great food. Some of the most fun we’ve had include times where we’ve figured out weekend trips as we walked out the door.”

Martinez is grateful for her family, her colleagues, and for the patients she treats.

“Sometimes there isn't a pill to fix what's going on with folks,” she says. “But one of the things we can provide as healers and as physicians is empathy. I think that empathy is literally healing.”