Disparities and racism in health care

From Anarcha Westcott to George Floyd to the Atlanta massacre


The Atlanta spa massacre, the commencement of the George Floyd trial, and COVID-19 highlight societal inequalities and health disparities among minority groups. We can only hope that we have arrived at the tipping point to address historical institutional racism and structural violence in this country.

Dr. Raghava Nagaraj, medical director, hospital medicine, Lexington (N.C.) Medical Center, assistant professor, Wake Forest University, and cochair, JEDI committee for diversity and inclusion, Wake Forest Baptist Health, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Dr. Raghava Nagaraj

Admittedly, we, as health care professionals, have been at best apathetic and at worst complicit with this tragedy. Dr. James Sims, the father of gynecology, perfected his surgical techniques of vaginal fistula on slaves. Starting in 1845, he performed over thirty surgeries without anesthesia on Anarcha Westcott.1 Moreover, the past century was dotted with similar transgressions such as the Tuskegee Untreated Syphilis Experiment from 1932 to 1972, the use of the cells of Henrietta Lack in 1951, and the disproportionate lack of funding of sickle cell research.2 We must move from complicit/apathetic to being part of the discourse and solution.

The juxtaposition of George Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” and the disproportionate way in which COVID-19 has affected Black communities and people of color highlights how deeply entrenched the problem of systemic racism is in this country. The innumerable reported hate crimes against Asian Americans stemming from xenophobia linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and the stereotyping of Hispanic Americans as criminals during the last U.S. administration demonstrate that all minority racial/ethnic groups are affected. As clinicians who care for the health of our communities and strive to reduce suffering, we have a responsibility to identify discrimination that exists in the health care system – ranging from subtle implicit bias to overt discrimination.3

Unconscious bias and its effect on diversity and inclusion has only recently been recognized and addressed in the realm of health care as applied to clinicians. This is key to structural racism as providers inadvertently use unconscious bias every day to make their medical decisions quick and efficient. As Dayna Bowen Matthews points out in her book, “Just Medicine,” “where health and health care are concerned, even when implicit biases are based on seemingly benign distinctions, or supported by apparently rational or widely held observations, these biases can cause grave individual, group, and societal harm that is commensurate to and even exceeds the harm caused by outright racism.” To deny the prejudices that providers have when making decisions for patients will perpetuate the racism and hinder our ability to overcome health inequity. Americans of racial and ethnic minorities have a higher incidence of chronic diseases and premature death when compared to white Americans.4 These disparities exist even when controlling for individual variations such as availability of health insurance, education, and socioeconomic status.5 Social determinants of health because of racial differences is often talked about as a cause of health care inequity, but given the evidence that providers play a much more active role in this, we need to become more comfortable with the discomfort of using the word “racism” if we intend to bring awareness and create change.

Brianna C. Haller, cochair, JEDI committee for diversity and inclusion, hospital medicine, Wake Forest Baptist Health, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Brianna C. Haller

In order to tackle structural racism in health care, organizations must take a multifaceted approach. Evidence-based strategies include: creation of an inclusive workforce, diversification of the workforce to better represent patient populations, and education/training on the effect of implicit bias on equitable health care.6 These aspirations can provide a framework for interventions at all levels of health care organizations.

The JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) committee of the section of hospital medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health System came into existence in November 2019. The objective for JEDI was to use evidence-based methods to help create an environment that would lead to the creation of a diverse and inclusive hospital medicine group. Prior to establishing our committee, we interviewed providers from traditional minority groups who were part of our practice to bring clarity to the discrimination faced by our providers from colleagues, staff, and patients. The discrimination varied from microaggressions caused by implicit biases to macroaggression from overt discrimination. We initiated our work on this burning platform by following the evidence-based methods mentioned earlier.


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