Expert Commentary

Physician leadership: Racial disparities and racism. Where do we go from here?

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The destructive toll COVID-19 has caused worldwide is devastating. In the United States, the disproportionate deaths of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people due to structural racism, amplified by economic adversity, is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the continued murder of Black people by those sworn to protect the public is abhorrent and can no longer be ignored. Black lives matter. These crises have rightly gripped our attention, and should galvanize physicians individually and collectively to use our privileged voices and relative power for justice. We must strive for engaged, passionate, and innovative leadership deliberately aimed toward antiracism and equity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the vast inequities in our country. It has highlighted the continued poor outcomes our health and health care systems create for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. It also has demonstrated clearly that we are all connected—one large community, interdependent yet rife with differential power, privilege, and oppression. We must address these racial disparities—not only in the name of justice and good health for all but also because it is a moral and ethical imperative for us as physicians—and SARS-CoV-2 clearly shows us that it is in the best interest of everyone to do so.

First step: A deep dive look at systemic racism

What is first needed is an examination and acknowledgement by medicine and health care at large of the deeply entrenched roots of systemic and institutional racism in our profession and care systems, and their disproportionate and unjust impact on the health and livelihood of communities of color. The COVID-19 pandemic is only a recent example that highlights the perpetuation of a system that harms people of color. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, economic and social injustice, religious persecution, and violence against women and children are age-old. We have yet to see health care institutions implement system-wide intersectional and antiracist practices to address them. Mandatory implicit bias training, policies for inclusion and diversity, and position statements are necessary first steps; however, they are not a panacea. They are insufficient to create the bold changes we need. The time for words has long passed. It is time to listen, to hear the cries of anguish and outrage, to examine our privileged position, to embrace change and discomfort, and most importantly to act, and to lead in dismantling the structures around us that perpetuate racial inequity.

How can we, as physicians and leaders, join in action and make an impact?

Dr. Camara Jones, past president of the American Public Health Association, describes 3 levels of racism:

  • structural or systemic
  • individual or personally mediated
  • internalized.

Interventions at each level are important if we are to promote equity in health and health care. This framework can help us think about the following strategic initiatives.

Continue to: 1. Commit to becoming an antiracist and engage in independent study...

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