How healthcare leaders can make it clear that black lives matter

The healthcare community has not been--and should not be--isolated from the recent dialog about racism spurred by outcry over what some view as police brutality and unequal justice targeted at black citizens, according to two recent opinion pieces in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There's no question that racial gaps in health outcomes exist, wrote New York City Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett, M.D. (pictured right), citing data from her department that indicate the rate of premature death is 50 percent higher among black men than white men, due in part to "dramatic disparities" in incidences of cancer, cardiovascular disease and HIV. Black women in NYC also are 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to die in childbirth, according to Bassett.

Yet while the aforementioned statistics as well as other research point to clear racial disparities in healthcare and the health of communities, few are willing to address the role racism plays in these gaps, Bassett wrote. When a group of medical students approached Bassett after a recent lecture to ask what they could do to support the "Black Lives Matter" movement, it further highlighted the fact that health professionals play a key role in fighting institutional and societal injustice.

"I believe that the dearth of critical thinking and writing on racism and health in mainstream medical journals represents a disservice to the medical students who approached me--and to all of us," she wrote.

To solve this problem, Bassett recommends critical research into what's driving racial disparities in healthcare, in conjunction with discussions about responsibility and accountability; public advocacy such as conducting peaceful demonstrations, writing editorials and leading "teach-ins"; and internal reform to diversify the physician workforce. Not only is a diverse staff key to tackling racial disparities in care, but a diverse C-suite also is vital, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

And when it comes to developing more diverse clinical workforce, the academic medical community plays a critical role, David A. Ansell, M.D., and Edwin K. McDonald, M.D., wrote in a separate opinion piece. "For the sake of not only black lives but all lives, we should heed our students' call to examine the implicit biases in our academic medical centers," they argue.

Noting that only 2.9 percent of all faculty members at U.S. medical schools are black and that the percentage of black men among all medical school graduates has declined over the past 20 years, Ansell and McDonald wrote that leaders in medical academia must conduct honest assessments of the role bias plays in disparities in medical school recruitment and faculty retention. And echoing Bassett's argument, Ansell and McDonald add that the most important step is simply to "talk about bias."

"Maybe then we'll have a chance to finally eliminate the racial healthcare disparities that persist in the United States," they wrote.

To learn more:
- here's Bassett's opinion piece
- read Ansell and McDonald's article