The events of 2020 highlighted the need for racial justice in all areas of society, but especially in healthcare. Appalling COVID-19 death rates among Black, Latino, and Indigenous people raised public awareness around health disparities and sparked calls for change. Many Americans were also galvanized to action by the killings of Black citizens, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. As a result, healthcare leaders now have both the opportunity and imperative to address the systemic impacts of discrimination on minority communities.
In partnership with Becker’s Hospital Review, Vituity CEO Imamu Tomlinson, MD, MBA, led a panel of diverse healthcare leaders in conversation. These experts identified five keys to healthcare justice:
The pandemic has turned our provider-centric care model on its head—and it’s probably for the best. “Our emerging model isn’t necessarily about telehealth,” says Dr. Tomlinson. “It’s about actually meeting patients where they are.” To this end, forward-thinking health systems are innovating to bring care closer to patients. Examples include launching mobile primary care teams and engaging dentists and pharmacists to perform health screenings in their communities.
Even before the coronavirus swept around the globe, patients in medically underserved areas struggled to obtain primary care. And when providers closed their doors to in-person visits during the pandemic, access for these communities went from bad to worse. Mortality data suggests that Americans—especially people of color—were more likely to die of unmanaged chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension throughout 2020. These vulnerable patients also missed important health and cancer screenings. As a result, “I think we are going to see a pandemic after the pandemic, especially in the minority community,” Dr. Frederick says.
Effective care requires us to understand our patients’ experiences, from the difficulties of quarantining in a multigenerational household to working without sick leave. Healthcare leaders can promote cultural competence by providing training, hiring diverse providers, and providing leadership pathways for minority candidates. “Sometimes, the person you appoint may not have the best résumé,” Dr. Bell says. “Not because they’re untalented but because no one has given them a chance.”
Fighting health disparities means surfacing uncomfortable truths. When the hospital board doesn’t reflect the community’s diversity or the university is long overdue for a female CEO, we must speak up. Courage also means speaking up for the voiceless in our organizations, like housekeepers, janitors, and food service workers. And finally, it means immersing ourselves in our communities by teaching, volunteering, and working clinical shifts.
Healthcare justice requires us to heal the distrust between underrepresented and disenfranchised groups and medical and governmental institutions. This starts with acknowledging the history of discrimination within the healthcare system while working to correct misinformation. One of the most effective ways to do this is to partner with trusted community organizations like churches, schools, and historically Black colleges. Finally, it’s crucial for diverse healthcare leaders to show our trust in science. When staff at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California, hesitated to get the coronavirus vaccine, CEO Caldwell volunteered to go next. “I had to show them it was safe,” she says.
The panel of dynamic physician and executive healthcare leaders included: