Dr. William Cunningham, a leading researcher on HIV/AIDS and health disparities, credits the Clinical Scholars program as being a key influence in his career development. “I felt empowered to make a difference and have an impact,” he says of the Program. Most importantly, the Clinical Scholars program gave Cunningham a way to bridge his passion for medicine with his desire to do work that would benefit society—as well as perform research that had major policy implications for the way that HIV/AIDS treatment programs were developed and funded.
Cunningham’s interest in health disparities began when he was an undergraduate at Brown University, Providence RI. In his sociology and anthropology classes, he learned how society’s inequalities were linked to race, class, culture and gender differences. As a result, he came to see health disparities as one of the most pressing issues of our time. After earning his BA from Brown and graduating from UCSF School of Medicine, Cunningham wanted to find a way to study health services and health disparities in his residency program. He interviewed with Martin Schapiro, who was a UCLA faculty member and an Associate director of the Clinical Scholars program at UCLA, and who encouraged him to apply to the Clinical Scholars program.
During his fellowship, Cunningham began doing work on HIV/AIDs treatment and health disparities that would have major implications for the way HIV/AIDS policy viewed treatment. At the time, services were heavily weighted on treating patients at the end of their lives and in hospitals, rather than treating a patient throughout their illness. Cunningham’s research, which focused on how access to health care could affect a patients’ quality of life, showed that patients needed early access to treatment and testing, especially for low-income and vulnerable populations. His findings helped shift the focus from treating patients in the late stages of HIV/AIDS to getting patients treated at the beginning and throughout their illness, while connecting patients with community-based social services and treatment programs early on.
HIV/AIDS and health disparities became the major subject of Cunningham’s career. Cunningham earned his MPH degree in epidemiology from UCLA in 1993 and to date has authored more than 90 manuscripts on disparities in health care, access to care, and health outcomes in AIDS and other populations. He was the primary investigator for a study funded by a provision in the Ryan White Care Act, which sought to find ways to improve care for underserved populations with HIV through outreach programs. Cunningham has also worked on additional projects that have addressed the costs of AIDS treatment, the access to care, health disparities between minority and non-minority adults, and health disparities in older and underserved populations.
“Not only did the Clinical Scholars open professional doors in terms of training and networking connections, but it also gave me the critical thinking skills that were vital to my career,” Cunningham tells us. The program encouraged him to “ask the big questions” about larger societal problems, and to think creatively about ways to solve those problems. “It was absolutely life-changing and career making.”