Equalized health care: a new beginning

Story by JUSTIN GALLETLY

Systemic racism is one of the more contentious topics of debate today.

While racism itself is well known, the matter of institutionalized racism entered the common lexicon following the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

While the situation brought attention to the idea of police reform, one area without much publicity is its relation to health care.

Blacks generally receive worse treatment than the average white citizen regarding health care services in America. This can be attributed largely due to both implicit and explicit biases from both health care providers and staffers at hospitals and clinics.

In response to the issue reaching public awareness, many organizations are beginning to take a stand against the issue.

One of them is the University of Utah Health, which declared on Jan. 12, 2021, that “systemic racism is a public health crisis.

A way systemic racism impacts Blacks is discrimination based on insurance status, which itself disproportionately impacts non-white citizens.

Other issues include misunderstandings based on false information regarding biological differences in Black people.

Examples include beliefs that Blacks have less sensitive nerve endings, a higher pain tolerance, and even stronger immune systems than whites.

As much as 73% of white medical students believe at least one, if not more, false misconceptions of biological differences regarding Blacks.

The Office for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is helping U Health addresses the situation at large.

Dr. Jose Rodriguez is the associate vice president of the organization, and one of its leading voices pushing to see serious policy changes against systemic racism.

Rodriguez took his position in August 2018, and his immediate course of action was to get deans staffed in the individual colleges across campus to address equity and inclusion matters.

Rodriguez explained in a Zoom call that at the time, his boss was unable to meet his request, stating resources weren’t available to make it happen.

Following the murder of George Floyd, this all changed. The deans Rodriguez requested were finally filled and accommodated for.

“We understand the anti-racism war is an individual responsibility of every employee. Our diversity office has to serve as the resource and the guidepost for that kind of work,” Rodriguez said. “We’re helping each of these individual units develop plans to move more towards equity. We’re helping them to revise and review their hiring practices to favor equity instead of favoring the white demographic.”

Rodriguez added, “This injustice is not new, but the George Floyd execution put it on people’s consciousness, with people coming out to say, ‘This is not my America.’ When that happened, it brought Blacks and whites together.”

This turning point subsequently led to mandatory implicit bias training for all staff working across the different divisions across campus.

The training really focused in on making staff members address any unknown prejudices deep within them and learn to be more aware of it so it wouldn’t affect their judgement.

Dr. Jose Rodriguez

This way, all patients, regardless of their race, can receive the same treatment without fear of discrimination.

“Society has this deeply entrenched, so it’s not our job to go around blaming each other and feeling bad about it, it’s our job to end it,” Rodriguez said.

The pandemic also played a substantial role in revealing the racist prejudices in our health care system.

Early in the pandemic, it became apparent that Blacks were far more likely to die of the disease than whites, as much as 3.57 times more likely.

These statistics, combined with the ongoing struggles the coronavirus has brought to daily life and the outcry from the aftermath of George Floyd, set in motion a chance to change the U Health’s standards.

“What COVID did is it laid naked the intensely racist nature of our society,” Rodriguez said.

As a result, the U Health just hired a senior diversity leader, Mikel Whittier.

His position only exists thanks to the Office for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion insisting on a need for more diversity officers in the delivery line space at the clinic.

“The hiring of my position is the start of action in moving strong language and a strong foundation that has already been set both by the Health Sciences Department and the hospital into action,” Whittier said in a Zoom interview. “What we see across the country, especially over the summer, is there’s a lot of statements made about equity, diversity, and inclusion and how there’s zero tolerance, but we see more of the same across the institution. When there’s time for action, there’s inaction in which you become complicit in racist behavior, so this is a step in that direction.”

As a Black man himself, Whittier says he knows all too well the realities of systemic racism, given he’s been on the receiving end of it.

In 2018, he lost his stepfather to cancer largely due to the inequities in place related to cancer outcomes, with Blacks far more likely to die of the disease than whites tend to.

The consequences Whittier faced due to systemic racism even stretch back to when he was born.

“If you look at infant mortality rates amongst Black women dying of complications of birth, my mom had to stay in the hospital for six additional months after I was born, and that’s a critical time as a newborn to not have your mother there,” Whittier said.

These experiences helped shape his convictions and channel them into working to fix the system.

The different staff members at the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion are all working together in specific tasks to tackle the problem and put an end to it.

Mauricio Laguan, a manager for recruitment and retention, explains some of the ways the Health division staff have managed to make positive changes to staffing policies.

Mauricio Laguan

“We’re developing an on-boarding training for new employees to understand how the University of Utah will protect them from discrimination and microaggressions from patients and other co-workers,” he said during a phone interview.

Laguan believes one of the harder challenges, especially for a state with as little diversity as Utah, is getting more people of color hired on for medical work.

“Long term, the things that are going to need more time is diversifying the people that work here. Having more Black doctors, having more Latinx doctors, more Polynesian doctors, more Pacific Islander doctors,” Laguan said.

Despite these challenges, work is being done to hopefully make a positive change for not only Blacks but all people of color at the U’s Health services.

For everyone at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, this challenge is only the beginning.

Indeed, for all involved, the fight to end systemic racism never ends.