Doctors, community leaders discuss racism in the health care system

Doctors, community leaders discuss racism in the health care system

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The violent death of George Floyd has forced the country to confront systemic racism, from courtrooms to boardrooms. On Wednesday, the conversation shifted to racial inequality in the healthcare system.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) College of Medicine hosted a virtual roundtable on structural racism in health care.

"The events, starting with the pandemic of the coronavirus up to and including the unfortunate and tragic events that resulted in the loss of life recently compel us to now dig deeper, try harder and be more courageous in looking for ways that we in the healthcare system can address these issues," said Altha Stewart, MD, Senior Associate Dean for Community Health Engagement, UTHSC College of Medicine.

For about 90 minutes, UTHSC medical experts and community leaders shared their perspectives about how systemic racism impacts the health of racial minorities.

Experts say Blacks are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease and numbers from the Shelby County Health Department show they're more likely to die from coronavirus.

Yet, studies show they receive lower-quality care at the doctor's office.

For instance, a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine by the American Medical Association, found Blacks waited 19 minutes longer on average than whites to receive care at medical clinics. Latinos waited even longer, 105 minutes, on average.

A 2018 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found Black men who visited black doctors were more likely to trust them, leading to better health outcomes.

But Census data shows Blacks make up just six percent of doctors, while they account for 12 percent of the U.S. population.

"All who are African Americans recognize this reality but it's largely invisible in the lives of white Americans," said Rabbi Micah Greenstein of the Temple Israel.

"This is not something that's intentional. We didn't plan this. But we've allowed it to happen," said Claudette Shephard, MD, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, UTHSC College of Medicine.

Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings also participated in the virtual discussion.

Rallings says many of the calls his officers deal with are related to mental health issues.

Last year, he says MPD's Crisis Intervention Team responded to 24,439 calls. It resulted in 6,097 transports to mental health providers. He said only 519 calls resulted in a criminal charge.

"When people say nobody trusts the police, well, 24,000 people do," said Rallings.

Rallings also said health disparities that have existed a long time need to be addressed.

"We need to speak the truth and unfortunately I don't hear a lot of it, and it's very frustrating for me," said Rallings. "I hear a lot of voices, but I don't hear some real concrete solutions."

The panelists agreed the best thing right now is to listen to patients, medical students, and others.

"We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and pledge to do better," said Scott Strome, Robert Kaplan Executive Dean, UTHSC College of Medicine.

More than 400 people watched the roundtable live on Wednesday.

UTHSC doctors say this is just the start of the conversations they plan to have around this topic.

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