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PNHP RESOURCES

Health professionals’ duty in responding to structural racism

Structural Racism and Supporting Black Lives — The Role of Health Professionals

By Rachel R. Hardeman, Ph.D., M.P.H., Eduardo M. Medina, M.D., M.P.H., and Katy B. Kozhimannil, Ph.D., M.P.A.
The New England Journal of Medicine, October 12, 2016

On July 7, 2016, in our Minneapolis community, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in the presence of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Acknowledging the role of racism in Castile’s death, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked rhetorically, “Would this have happened if those passengers [and] the driver were white? I don’t think it would have.”

Disproportionate use of lethal force by law-enforcement officers against communities of color is not new, but now we increasingly have video evidence of the traumatizing and violent experiences of black Americans. Structural racism — a confluence of institutions, culture, history, ideology, and codified practices that generate and perpetuate inequity among racial and ethnic groups — is the common denominator of the violence that is cutting lives short in the United States.

The term “racism” is rarely used in the medical literature. Most physicians are not explicitly racist and are committed to treating all patients equally. However, they operate in an inherently racist system. Structural racism is insidious, and a large and growing body of literature documents disparate outcomes for different races despite the best efforts of individual health care professionals. If we aim to curtail systematic violence and premature death, clinicians and researchers will have to take an active role in addressing the root cause.

Structural racism, the systems-level factors related to, yet distinct from, interpersonal racism, leads to increased rates of premature death and reduced levels of overall health and well-being. Like other epidemics, structural racism is causing widespread suffering, not only for black people and other communities of color but for our society as a whole. It is a threat to the physical, emotional, and social well-being of every person in a society that allocates privilege on the basis of race. We believe that as clinicians and researchers, we wield power, privilege, and responsibility for dismantling structural racism — and we have a few recommendations for clinicians and researchers who wish to do so.

First, learn about, understand, and accept the United States’ racist roots.

Second, understand how racism has shaped our narrative about disparities.

Third, define and name racism.

Finally, to provide clinical care and conduct research that contributes to equity, we believe it’s crucial to “center at the margins” — that is, to shift our viewpoint from a majority group’s perspective to that of the marginalized group or groups.

Addressing violence against black communities can start with antiracist practices in clinical care and research. Do we have the courage and conviction to fight to ensure that black lives do indeed matter?

http://www.nejm.org...

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Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

The authors note that “most physicians are not explicitly racist and are committed to treating all patients equally,” but, importantly, “they operate in an inherently racist system.” Further, “structural racism is insidious, and a large and growing body of literature documents disparate outcomes for different races despite the best efforts of individual health care professionals.”

They state, “If we aim to curtail systematic violence and premature death, clinicians and researchers will have to take an active role in addressing the root cause.” They then offer some useful suggestions on how we might approach structural racism.

But we should go further. In an internal communication, David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler suggest developing “a list of health financing demands related to fighting racism.”

One of the more obvious places to start would be the enactment of a single payer national health program in which financing of health facilities and health care would be equitable.

But reading the comments published by NEJM in response to this article suggest that we have more to do than simply address structural racism. One physician commented, “The NEJM, a formerly highly respected medical journal, has lowered itself to the level of  a political journal that supports people who advocate the murder of policemen… This journal is now a ‘throwaway’.”

Another commenter from Georgia wrote, “K-12 schools need to teach students how to comply with police orders.”

Sadly, the problems are deeper than just structural racism. That will make our task much more difficult. But as health professionals, it is imperative that we join in leading the way toward improving the health of the nation by implementing structural reform that would improve the health of each and everyone of us. These efforts should be disproportionately directed to the greatest problems until we can achieve a truly egalitarian equilibrium.

For more on this very important topic, see the article below:

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Single-Payer Health Reform: A Step Toward Reducing Structural Racism in Health Care

By Dominic F. Caruso, MD/MPH Candidate, David U. Himmelstein, MD, and Steffie Woolhandler, MD
Harvard Public Health Review, July 20, 2015

http://www.pnhp.org...