SHM Converge

Improving health disparities starts with acknowledging structural racism



Earlier this spring, Kimberly D. Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP, was caring for an elderly Black man with multiple comorbidities at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, assembling an order for medications and a discharge plan.

Dr. Kimberly D. Manning professor of medicine and associate vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Emory University Department of Medicine, Atlanta

Dr. Kimberly D. Manning

“It was very challenging,” Dr. Manning, professor of medicine and associate vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Emory University, Atlanta, recalled during a May 4 session at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

At one point, the patient glanced at her, shrugged, and said: “You know, Doc, we get in where we fit in.”

“He was talking about the idea that people who come from historically disadvantaged backgrounds just have to try to figure it out, have to try to make a dollar out of 15 cents,” Dr. Manning said. “This, to me, really underscores what we mean when we say health disparities, this idea that there are people who are working hard and doing the best that they can but who still are forced to ‘get in where they fit in.’”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health disparities as preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. “When we think about health disparities we often think about many diagnoses,” Dr. Manning continued. “We think about HIV and the disparate care and outcomes we’ve seen in populations of individuals who come from minority backgrounds. We see disparities in obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality and maternal death, hospital readmissions, and COVID-19. We know that people who do not have access to health care or to healthy neighborhoods and environments or who are economically disadvantaged have poorer outcomes. It plays out with all of these diagnoses.”

In her opinion, health disparities in hospital medicine fall into in one of three buckets: diagnosis and triage, hospital stay and treatment, and sticking the landing – “that is, after a patient leaves the hospital,” Dr. Manning explained. “The hospital stay is the turn on the balance beam. You can do everything perfectly, but then you must dismount. To score a ‘10’ you have to stick the landing. That means being able to get your medications, being able to get to and from clinic appointments, being able to understand the directions you’ve been given. All of these things are intertwined, the inpatient and outpatient care.”

The roots of health disparities in hospitalized patients stem from centuries ago, she said, when America’s health care system was built to benefit white male landowners and their families. Health care for Blacks, on the other hand, “was focused on function, almost like veterinary care, or experimentation,” Dr. Manning said. “After slavery ended, many historically Black institutions of higher learning opened, including medical schools. In 1909, there were seven historically Black medical schools. Acknowledging the history that preceded disparities is essential.”

In her view, the path to improving health care disparities starts with conceding that structural racism exists in the practice of medicine. “This means that health disparities are connected to systemic and individual issues, including our biases,” Dr. Manning said. “Our system was built on this idea that there is greater value of one group of people above others. Access to care, physician workforce, and biases are impacted by system design. Health equity and health equality are not the same.”

She also underscored the importance of the social determinants of health, or “those things we need to be healthy,” including economic stability, neighborhood and physical environment, educational opportunities, access to good food, community and social context, and the idea of health care as a human right and understanding our health care system. “This is what is necessary,” she declared. “Without all of these together, we can’t have the health outcomes that we desire.”

As hospital leaders work to build a more diverse physician workforce, Dr. Manning emphasized the importance of forming antiracism policies by addressing questions such as what will we not stand for? How will we protect and create psychologically safe environments? What is our commitment to diversity in leadership and in trainees? What is our commitment to implicit bias training and bystander training?

“We have to get uncomfortable enough to advocate with urgency because all of these are necessary factors to mitigate health disparities,” she said. “Though the systemic issues are the most urgent, on an individual level, we must continue to disrupt the negative ideology and stereotypes that threaten our environment every day. When we see those negative things, we have to call them out. We need to continue to listen, to humanize those things that are happening around us, and to understand historical context.”

Dr. Manning reported having no financial disclosures.

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