Health Disparities

Aaron Taylor, MD, joined UPMC Mercy’s Division of Trauma in 2020 as an orthopaedic trauma surgeon. He is also an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Dr. Taylor completed his residency in orthpaedics surgery at Cleveland Clinic Foundation, followed by an orthopaedic trauma fellowship at the University of Rochester.

When did you realize you wanted to become a doctor?

I grew up in and around Detroit. I attended a Catholic high school in Detroit and John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in Cleveland.

I was a biology major and planned to teach high school life sciences. My mother was my role model. She didn’t begin college until I was about 9 years old. She became a special education teacher, and the difference she made in the lives of her students influenced me tremendously.

Teaching and working with high school students was terrific. But I taught during the No Child Left Behind era. I grew increasingly frustrated with the external pressures that were being exerted on schools. When schools couldn’t make their performance targets on standardized tests, the first punishment they received was the removal of resources. That struck me as incredibly counterproductive.

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I asked myself, “What can I do with a degree in biology?” I knew service had to be a part of whatever I would do. I thought back to an ankle injury I had in college that required surgery. When the orthopaedic surgeon explained to me what was needed, I was fascinated. I wondered if I could become that kind of person, too. During the summer before my last year of teaching, I studied for the MCATs. So, I applied to medical school and I was admitted to Case Western and started medical school.

Was it hard being a Black male in medical school?

My undergraduate experience had very few people of color. There was more diversity in medical school; however, there was not a large group of Black students. I felt more like the odd man out because of my age. There also seemed to be less focus in med school on race than on “pedigree.”

And while I was definitely challenged in medical school, I thought my teaching experience was harder than my day-to-day responsibilities as a medical student. To this day, I still think the hardest thing I’ve ever done was my first year of teaching.

Orthopaedics is a specialty heavily dominated by white men. Did you consider any other area of medicine? Did you face any barriers?

I looked at other fields, but I never found anything that intrigued or excited me as much as orthopaedics. In the fourth year of med school, I did an orthopaedic trauma rotation and learned about treating people with multiple issues like broken bones and systemic injuries. I knew right away that was the kind of medicine I wanted to do. As an orthopaedics traumatologist, I’m not just caring for a broken bone in isolation. I’m working with a multidisciplinary team that is caring for the whole person in an acute setting. I really value that interaction and collaboration.

It’s my sense that orthopaedics lacks inclusivity because there’s a fear of diluting the quality of the profession. It’s easier to let someone into the field if they fit the mold of what an orthopaedic surgeon should look like. It’s a shorthand way of assuring quality.

Unfortunately, a lot of qualified people don’t fit that mold. There have to be standards, but orthopaedics overlooks people simply because they don’t “fit the mold.” From that standpoint, I think it’s valuable for someone like me to be here as an example to medical students and residents with aspirations of entering orthopaedics. It’s hard to be something if you’ve never seen it.

And like Black providers in virtually every specialty, I’ve experienced microaggressions. More than once, I’ve shown up on a hospital floor to consult with a patient only for staff to think I’m there to transport that person to x-ray. I’ve had female colleagues share similar experiences.

In your role as a doctor, do you call on any of the concepts and skills you learned as a teacher?

What I do as a doctor shares many parallels with what I did as a teacher. Successful patient care is about communicating effectively with the patient and the family. If you have an injury, I have to be able to diagnose your problem and care for you. To do that, I also have to be able to tell you what your injury is, explain what we’re going to do, and help you to understand the treatment plan and any possible complications that might occur. If I can’t do that, then you can’t participate in your care. It’s very similar to helping a student understand cellular biology — the same basic, educational concepts apply.

What concerns you most about the health disparities faced by your orthopaedic trauma patients?

That’s an especially tough discussion because in trauma, your outcomes as a patient are heavily dependent on your socioeconomic situation. Do you have a network of social resources like friends and family to help you? Do you have a job that offers medical benefits for your injury? Do you have the health literacy to keep up with your medications and instructions for post-op wound care? Do you have the means to get to and from the hospital for clinic visits? All those things play a role in your ultimate outcome — and that’s rolled up in your race, where you live, and your socioeconomic status.

Is there any connection between your experiences attending a Catholic high school and university and your work at UPMC Mercy, Pittsburgh’s only Catholic hospital?

Before I started here, my answer would have been no. But when I interviewed at UPMC Mercy, the then-president of the hospital said that he thought I really fit with what they’re trying to do here. Now that I’m on staff, I understand what he meant. Many of our patients need much greater help. They need someone who sees and cares for them as a person.

Orthopaedic surgeons are often stereotyped as just caring about repairing an injury. I hope I don’t fall into that category. Many of our patients need much more than having a broken bone fixed. My senior partner at UPMC Mercy, Gele Moloney, MD, and I think of medical service in the same way. We’re both committed to ensuring our patients get the appropriate care for all of their issues — to link them to the very best total care we can provide as a hospital. I want to make a difference beyond just healing an injury: I want to impact a patient’s life. That’s what motivated me as a teacher, and now as a doctor.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.