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Patricia (Pat) Dawson, MD, FACS, PhD, an esteemed breast cancer surgeon who in 2018 became medical director for Healthcare Equity at UW Medicine, died on Dec. 13, 2020.

Along with being a respected and beloved surgeon and community member, she was known for her work advancing equity in and out of healthcare, for her lifelong commitment to volunteering, and for her love of family, travel and books.

“During her 40-year clinical career, Pat Dawson was admired for her determination to address organizational issues around healthcare equity, diversity, inclusion and cultural competency,” said Paul Ramsey, MD, CEO of UW Medicine. “At UW Medicine, she partnered with Paula Houston, chief equity officer, to create a robust system-wide infrastructure for equity, diversity and inclusion. We can best honor her memory by continuing our urgent and unfinished work to achieve these goals for our patients, faculty, staff, trainees, students and community.”

A celebrated career

As a breast cancer surgeon, Dawson completed her first residency at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey before completing a second residency at Virginia Mason in Seattle.

She went on to work for Group Health (now Kaiser Permanente), in private practice and at Swedish before becoming the medical director at the Swedish Cancer Institute from 2004 through 2012 and the medical director for the Breast Program at the Institute from 2008 through 2018.

Though she joined UW Medicine full-time in 2018 as our inaugural medical director for Healthcare Equity, her professional path had crossed with ours before, first from 1989 to 1991 as a clinical preceptor for the MEDEX program and again from 1996 to 2002 as a clinical tutor at the UW School of Medicine.

Dawson was also the embodiment of a lifelong learner. After earning her medical degree from the New Jersey Medical School in 1977, she went on to complete a master’s degree in organizational development in 1996, certificates in Gestalt therapy and diversity management (also in 1996), a PhD in human and organizational systems in 1998, and a certificate in medical management in 2000.

Along with her prolific career, throughout her life Dawson was also a regular volunteer at medical and social justice organizations, including at University of Washington from 1991 through 2017 as a mentor for students from underrepresented groups and at the UW Women’s Center as a board member from 1993 through 2011.

She was regularly recognized for her achievements with awards and honors from the Washington Susan G. Komen Foundation, the American Medical Women’s Association, Puget Sound Business Journal and more.

Postponing retirement to promote equity

In 2018, Dawson planned to retire from her career as a surgeon. Instead, she found herself following a different (but not entirely new) career path as UW Medicine’s inaugural medical director for Healthcare Equity, now the Office of Healthcare Equity.

In her time in this role, Dawson co-led equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) trainings for more than 3,000 leaders at UW Medicine, launched five clinical improvement projects to better meet the needs of people from marginalized populations, facilitated community conversations about healthcare equity and the issues the community most cares about, and more. Most recently, she led the Office of Healthcare Equity leadership team in the development of the Equity Impact Review Tool, which allows leaders across the institution to have a structured way to put an equity lens on policies, programs and practices.

“Dr. Dawson’s reputation and powerful, yet quiet presence instilled confidence and a sense of calm in those around her,” said Paula Houston, chief equity officer, UW Medicine and Dr. Dawson’s dyad partner. “When our team was called on for consultation for an equity, diversity and inclusion issue that was of a clinical nature, it was clear that Pat’s presence provided a sense that this was going to be able to be worked out.”

Equity work was part of her journey throughout her life. During the past few decades, she was appointed to task forces on ethics, affirmative action, staff diversity, gender discrimination and sexual harassment for the King County Medical Society, Washington State Medical Society and more, as well as projects and organizations promoting the work of women and Black surgeons.

From early in her career, she gave talks and presentations about gender and racial discrimination in medicine and the field of surgery specifically, documenting her own experiences in her PhD dissertation that was published as a book entitled, “Forged by the Knife: The Experience of Surgical Residency from the Perspective of a Woman of Color.”

Forged by the Knife

In a Huddle interview with Dawson in 2018, she remarked that social justice was in her DNA. Her goal, she said, was “to work toward a society that respects and works for everybody.” Her work has made a lasting impact toward that goal, and her legacy as a surgeon and activist will live on.

Her legacy will also live on through the Dr. Patricia L. Dawson Endowed Faculty Fellowship, which will support the work of a faculty leader in the Office of Healthcare Equity. Learn more about the fellowship.