February 25, 2021
Dr. Ashira Blazer is literally a rising star. This year, she won the 40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health Award sponsored by the National Minority Quality Forum, an organization with which the Lupus Research Alliance works closely. But what makes her a winner? And why is the LRA celebrating her during Black History Month?
We think it’s a combination of her tremendous competence, commitment and compassion. Dr. Blazer became a rheumatologist to take care of people with lupus. That desire came from her heart. When she was in medical school learning about autoimmune diseases, one of her many cousins didn’t show up for Thanksgiving dinner. “She described her symptoms, and I was reading them right out of my textbook,” relates Dr. Blazer. “I joined her on her lupus journey and have witnessed everything she has gone through ever since.”
The goal of alleviating lupus suffering intersected with an equally strong commitment to alleviating health disparities. “As a black woman in the United States, I am acutely aware of health disparities because I live it, I read about it, and I see it in my patients. Doing something to address this unfairness feels particularly cutting and urgent when it touches people you love,” she adds. She also became a rheumatologist because she saw a particular need for more black rheumatologists given the relative high percentage of minority patients. She quoted a recent survey by the American College of Rheumatology, in which only eight in 2,000 members identified as African Americans.
Dr. Blazer has emerged as a well-respected voice in health diversity that people listen to. On staff at NYU Langone, she is very involved in the Lupus Clinical Investigators Network managed by the LRA affiliate Lupus Therapeutics. Her role is to educate patients of color about clinical trials so they may understand why their participation is so important and to help find solutions to barriers such as distrust, lost wages, childcare concerns, paperwork, and transportation. “I don’t directly mitigate these barriers, but I am talking to people who can and so my voice is moving the needle.”
Her research also focuses on alleviating racial disparities, looking at how genes are affected by outside factors to cause the common complication lupus nephritis. “The notion that certain racial groups are biologically or genetically prone to disease misses the social underpinnings of race and perpetuates structural racism in medicine. Race is not determined by genetics, and racial disparities are caused by other factors like lifestyle, nutrition, and stress, that can greatly affect health outcomes. When we stop talking about race, and start talking about common ancestry and the environment together, we can move beyond old ways of practicing medicine and eliminate discrimination.”