Logo for University of Iowa Health Care This logo represents the University of Iowa Health Care

2023 Award for Early Career Achievement: Denise A. Martinez, MD

11R–family medicine 

Denise Martinez worked tirelessly to address health disparities in Iowa during her time with UI Health Care. She led numerous student organizations and programs focused on inclusion and belonging in medical training as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and interim associate vice president for health parity. 

As the first physician in her family, she understands firsthand the obstacles that students from groups underrepresented in medicine face. 

“I decided pretty early that I wanted to be a physician,” she says, “but I went into undergrad and was told that I would not be successful as a medical student.” 

She persevered and entered a career pathway program at the University of Washington, the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP). The rest is history. By age 29, she was serving as the youngest dean in a medical school in the country.  

Portrait of Dr. Denise Martinez
Dr. Denise Martinez

In 2017, she launched the University of Iowa’s chapter of SHPEP to bring 80 young scholars to campus each year, encouraging their interests in medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy through hands-on learning. The program has become a pillar in the college’s strategy to diversify the health care workforce and address physician workforce shortages in Iowa and beyond. 

“There's lots of good data that shows that if you have a workforce that's diverse—people of different ages, different backgrounds, different abilities, different identities—it makes a huge difference for patients. They see themselves reflected in the people who are taking care of them,” she says. “Teams that have folks of many different identities often come up with creative solutions, which are important to patient care.” 

Martinez's priority is teaching medical trainees to serve rural and disadvantaged patient populations with empathy. She draws on her own experience as a family medicine physician in this work. 

“When you work with an underserved community, oftentimes family docs are the ones who address people’s most basic health needs in a way that's very patient-centered and collaborative,” she says. “A lot of people who are interested in health disparities end up being family physicians because it is a good vehicle to figure out how to address the needs of the individual and the community.” 

She says this award reminds her of the impact of her work at UI Health Care. 

It's a huge honor. I feel extremely grateful,” Martinez says. “It also reminds me that I wouldn’t have been able to do all of this by myself. It comes from a team, it comes from the institution, and it comes with a ton of support from a lot of people.” 

Among those people are the scores of medical students whose passions and talents she has fostered over the years. 

“Some of the earliest students I've mentored are attending physicians now. They've gone through the whole thing, and they're mentoring their own folks. To see that life cycle is amazing,” she says. “Some of the folks who we've been able to help, who might not have gotten in into these fields otherwise, will no doubt create ripples through their patients and their community. That big ripple effect—that's what's going to change medicine one day.” 

Martinez served as interim associate VP for health parity and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion through July 2023.