Better Together: MSDH Chief Medical Officer Justin Turner talks moving forward in keynote address for JSU’s 145th Founders’ Day

Jackson State University celebrated 145 years of quality service during the annual Founders’ Day Convocation on Thursday, Oct. 20. The event was held on the Gibbs-Green Pedestrian Walkway and featured a keynote by Dr. Justin Turner, the first African-American to serve as MSDH Chief Medical Officer.

“This morning’s ceremony is an opportunity for us to reflect on our rich heritage, take pride in our present achievements, and plan for our rich future guided by our strategic guidebook, Elevate,” said JSU President Thomas K. Hudson, J.D., during his welcome remarks. 

This was the first in-person Founder’s Day since the beginning of the pandemic. The looming global health crisis revealed many health disparities within the state and the nation, which was the basis of Turner’s oration. The doctor addressed guests about moving public health forward in Mississippi.

“We won’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been, and 145 years ago, Jackson State was born, and guess what? The Mississippi State Department of Health was born 145 years ago, too, in 1877. I don’t think that’s ironic. I think it’s divine,” stated Turner.

During his speech, the CEO of TurnerCare, LLC asked his alma mater to aid him in his efforts to create a healthier Mississippi as the newly appointed MSDH chief medical officer. Turner challenged the JSU family to become mentors as he reminisced about the inspiration he gained from his mentor and former professor Mark Henderson, Ph.D., who serves as assistant professor of speech at JSU.

“I had an elective called speech, and I just knew I would ace it. I got my speech together and got up to speak, and it seemed like my tongue was stuck. My professor was Dr. Mark Henderson over the Speech Arts Department,” Turner reflected. “He saw the shyness in me, but he also saw the potential. So, Dr. Mark Henderson mentored me and invested in me. He helped me go from where I desired to be to where I needed to be. Mentorship is a value.”

The Jackson Free Press 2015 Best Doctor in Jackson shared how he was finally able to successfully deliver a speech he wrote about becoming a doctor and returning to his home state to serve his community. At that time, the physician didn’t know he was foreshadowing the life he now lives.

Turner expressed the need to combat healthcare disparities. One, in particular, was the need for more Black doctors in minority communities. He explained how less than 5% of American doctors are Black.

“Studies show that Black patients who see Black doctors have better health outcomes. Studies also show that Black men who have Black doctors are more likely to proceed with invasive tests or invasive procedures.”

The healthcare professional emphasized how paramount it is to increase the number of physicians representing minority populations before making a surprise announcement that he is launching the Dr. Justin Turner Scholarship Fund at JSU in 2023.

“We really have to remember to put our money where our mouth is,” he said.

The keynote speaker urged ceremony attendees to give back because it may change the trajectory of someone’s life. Turner reminded everyone to create paths for future generations as JSU’s founder Rev. H.P. Jacobs, Ph.D., did for the JSU community.

Turner’s next point was the need to channel your purpose. He warned that walking in your purpose may be challenging, but behind your purpose lies passion followed by accomplishments.

“I have a 4-year-old and a 13-year-old. I don’t just talk to them and ask them what they want to be when they grow up. I ask them, what problems on earth are they created to solve? I challenge them to think about their mindset. Every last one of you all here has purpose Inside you,” shared Turner.

Turner declared that the only way to take Mississippi from the bottom to the top was for everyone to walk in their purpose. He added there is also a need to craft partnerships and overcome the “crabs in a barrel” mentality among the Black community.

“Everybody is not always going to get to shine. Everyone is not always going to be able to get the credit, but a problem I find in our community is that the minute someone else starts getting credit, we have a problem,” said Turner, a 2013 Young Physician Merit Award recipient.

Turner persuaded the attendees to craft partnerships in order to work better together and spoke about the newly formed collaboration between JSU, MSDH, and the Mississippi Kidney Foundation to promote health equity in the state.

The JSU alum illustrated the benefits of partnerships by describing how MSDH partnered with HBCUs throughout the state to increase vaccination rates in minority communities during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic—resulting in the state’s transition from the lowest number of vaccinated minorities to one of the highest in the nation.

Turner concluded his speech by encouraging everyone to contain the pain of pursuing their purpose and asking the audience to be the change they want to see. He went on to state that disliking someone shouldn’t be a deterrent from working together to bring about positive change.

“There are a lot of differences that characterize us here in Mississippi; Black, white, young, old and different backgrounds. We don’t have to all be best friends, but we do have to be best Mississippians. I’m challenging all of us Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, whoever, to understand that humanity is the central force. Love is the vaccine that we need.”