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Medical Leaders, Professionals Discuss Racial Disparities in Health Care at Virtual HSPH Forum

Medical leaders and professionals mulled strategies to counter racial disparities in health care in a Tuesday virtual forum.
Medical leaders and professionals mulled strategies to counter racial disparities in health care in a Tuesday virtual forum. By Zing Gee
By Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

Medical leaders and professionals mulled strategies to counter racial disparities in health care in a Tuesday virtual forum hosted by the School of Public Health.

Harvard Opinion Research Program Assistant Director Mary G. Findling, Harvard Medical School Director of Health Equity Education Alden Landry, Rush University Medical Center Senior Vice President David A. Ansell, and the Commonwealth Fund Vice President for Health System Equity Laurie C. Zephyrin all spoke at the event.

Nicholas St. Fleur, a reporter at STAT and the discussion’s moderator, kicked off the event by describing how the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified racial inequalities in the health care system.

“Covid-19 is shining a light on health inequity, exacerbating long-standing health disparities, and forcing Americans to confront a legacy of medical mistrust born of generations of racism and bias,” Fleur said. “Whether we’re talking about Covid-19, maternal health, or cancer screening, the fact is that people of color often have a very different experience of the health care system.”

Findling shared insights from a recent poll organized by the Harvard Opinion Research Program in partnership with the Commonwealth Fund illustrating the prevalence of racism for patients of color in the United States. The poll found that, among the roughly 1200 households surveyed, 36 percent and 35 percent of Black and Latino households, respectively, had experienced some form of racial or ethnic discrimination in their medical care in the past year.

Findling said that racism in the health care industry extends beyond specific situations and encompasses the system as a whole. She cited several health care locations — including pharmacies, urgent care centers, and private clinics — where race can negatively impact patient experiences.

“This is not just happening at the ER, this is not just happening at a neighborhood health clinic,” she said. “One in 10 and one in 12 Black and Latino patients reported discrimination at any different types of these providers, really underscoring for us how widespread this problem is in health care delivery.”

“It’s occurring everywhere,” Findling added.

Landry noted the importance of weighing both quantitative data and patient stories to achieve a complete picture of racial inequities in the health care system. He recounted a formative interaction from his early career where, after eight hours of waiting for medical care, a Black patient asked Landry why all the Black patients were placed in the main hallway, the busiest area of the hospital.

“It was the first time that I, who was a part of the health care system — where I was caring for patients in the hallway, where I was caring for patients throughout the emergency department — actually stopped to realize that I was operating within a system that was showing bias against certain patient groups,” Landry said.

Panelists concluded the forum with an overview of strategies to improve medical training for future generations of health care professionals. Landry underscored the importance of guiding students to a comprehensive understanding of the racial underpinnings of health, disease, and care.

“Medical education needs an overhaul where health equity needs to be ingrained within the culture of medical education,” he said.

Landry added that in discussions with medical trainees, there needs to be a reckoning with the structural racism associated with diseases and their treatments.

“When we’re having a discussion, not only do we talk about the disease and pathophysiology, but we also talk about the structural racism that’s linked to the disease, we talk about the inequities that are associated with the disease, we talk about the social determinants of health that are associated with the disease,” Landry said.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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HealthHarvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthMedicineGlobal Health