No more Band-Aid solutions — 4 Black healthcare leaders on why it's time to treat racism like the systemic disease it is

America's racial disparities are on full display in healthcare. Studies show that racial minorities, particularly Black Americans, have worse health outcomes than whites.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the severity of these inequities. For example, a study published May 21 in Health Affairsfound that Black COVID-19 patients are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized as their white counterparts. Additionally, an analysis published April 7 found that majority-black counties have reported nearly six times the rate of novel coronavirus-related deaths as majority-white counties.

In a June 16 webinar, hosted by The Leverage Network and Becker's Healthcare, four leading healthcare executives discussed the current status of race in America, the racial inequalities that exist in healthcare, and what leaders can do to create change in their organizations.

The panelists were:

  • Lloyd Dean, CEO of CommonSpirit Health (Chicago)
  • Eugene Woods, president and CEO of Atrium Health (Charlotte, N.C.)
  • Pamela Sutton-Wallace, senior vice president and regional COO of New York Presbyterian Hospital (New York City)
  • Michellene Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer of RWJBarnabas Health (West Orange, N.J.)

The discussion was moderated by Antionette Hardy-Waller, president and CEO of The Leverage Network, and Scott Becker, JD, founder and publisher of Becker's Healthcare.

Here are five key points and quotes from the discussion:

1. The disparities seen in the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with the public killing of George Floyd, emphasize the depth of racism in the U.S., Ms. Hardy-Waller explained. "In the past 90 days we have experienced the gravity of over 400 years of oppression, repression, suppression and aggression against Black lives. It began with the COVID-19 pandemic that unmasked the severe disparities and inequities. [It] was escalated with the public death of George Floyd," Ms. Hardy-Waller said. "Together these two pandemics have shown us that we really haven't made much progress since the Civil Rights movement. There is this tremendous gap we are still experiencing between the basic human rights of minorities and that of the majority population."

2. Driving change starts with having courageous, unedited conversations about race, Mr. Woods explained."We've been reticent in this country sometimes to have the conversation about race. I do think [change] starts with that courageous conversation. If you are in the field or a leader, throw the scripts away, listen to your teammates and colleagues of color, ask them how they are doing, what barriers they are seeing, how they are feeling about the state of things," Mr. Wood said. He added that African American leaders need to have candid conversations about their experiences and not self-edit as much while having these conversations. "Too many of us have been polite around it or scared to have it," he said. 

3. The conversation needs to mature into action, including steps like reviewing how racism shows up in your organization and implementing policies to stomp out and actively revoke racism, Ms. Davis explained. "We must reevaluate our processes, policies, decision-making processes and who has power in the organization. Everyone has issued statements, but this is not a one-statement issue," Ms. Davis said, adding that leaders need to ask themselves if they're creating opportunities for safe-space discussions and equipping others with the tools to have these conversations. Ms. Davis pointed out that there are guidelines for organizations that outline what white supremacist culture looks like in an organization, as well as racial equity assessment tools that can help evaluate administrative, operational and clinical decisions.

4. To address racism in the U.S., the country needs a holistic approach, rather than a one-off solution, Mr. Dean said. "One of the reasons this nation hasn't been able to impactfully address racism is because we accept incremental gains or episodic related solutions," Mr. Dean said. "We cannot accept as a nation Band-Aids being put on cancers. We have to figure out how we are going to treat this in a systematic way … we have got to have a multifaceted set of solutions for a multifaceted issue." 

5. To combat disparities in health outcomes and support the economic wellbeing of Black Americans, the nation needs to prioritize equity and address racism head on, Ms. Sutton-Wallace said. Whether the factor being studied is income, insurance access, where we live, the reality is that race gaps still persist in health outcomes, Ms. Sutton-Wallace explained. These factors are interconnected, and often leaders get distracted addressing one element, but not addressing the other element, which is race. "This means racism has to be addressed for us to reach health equity in the United States," Ms. Sutton-Wallace said. In addition, Ms. Sutton-Wallace added that the U.S. should begin thinking about equity not equality, which means ensuring people are placed on a more level playing field earlier in life. 

The panelists urged the healthcare community to address racial disparities head on immediately. We may have reached a tipping point in recent weeks, but this urgent call to action has been building for centuries. 

"People always say none of this can happen overnight, and I always ask them what about 400 years and a night?" Mr. Dean said. 

To listen to the webinar on race and healthcare, click here

More articles on leadership:
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