The social unrest of 2020 shed light on systemic racism in all areas of society, including healthcare. Throughout the pandemic, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans have been more likely to present with severe COVID-19 symptoms and ultimately die from the disease. And while many experts have lauded virtual care as a key to equal access, it could widen the disparities we’re seeing.
Our most affluent patients can now access primary care, urgent care, and even consult an ED provider with a few taps on a smartphone. However, more than 40% of Medicare patients lack access to a computer and high-speed internet connection at home. Black, Hispanic, and disabled beneficiaries were among the least likely to be wired for telehealth. As a result, many of these at-risk patients have gone without preventative care and chronic disease management since primary care providers closed their doors to in-person visits in early 2020.
So, as healthcare leaders and providers, how can we work for greater healthcare equity? In this article, I’ll discuss why reducing healthcare disparities must start with rebuilding patient trust. We’ll also explore the importance of increasing diversity at every level of our healthcare workforce. And finally, I’ll share ways to encourage minority youth to pursue healthcare careers for the promise of a more equitable future.
1. Healthcare Equality Starts with Gaining Patient Trust
Our much-anticipated “return to normalcy” after COVID-19 depends on mass vaccination. Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy is prevalent nationwide, especially among people of color. Despite being at increased risk, 35% of Black adults say they probably won’t get vaccinated. What’s more, 48% percent of Blacks and 36% of Latinos say that vaccine developers aren’t taking their respective communities’ needs into account.
Unfortunately, minority communities have good reasons to distrust healthcare. Throughout history, people of color have been exploited in medical research, forcibly sterilized, and silenced with spurious mental health diagnoses. More recently, they have been underrepresented in medical research. And to this day, discrimination is alive and well in medicine, as the heartbreaking story of physician Dr. Susan Moore illustrates. While hospitalized with COVID-19, she reported via social media that doctors were downplaying her complaints of pain and talking about sending her home. She later died of the disease.
Reversing hundreds of years of discrimination won’t happen overnight, but we can begin by admitting our inherent biases and taking accountability for our behavior. Actions like listening, asking opinions, offering choices, and believing our patients can help to rebuild trust. On an organizational level, we can work with community partners to understand where and how patients feel safe accessing care. For example, establishing a vaccination pod at a trusted community church might be more effective than at a distant convention center.