How local health systems are addressing health inequities

African Americans are at the epicenter of two deadly pandemics: COVID-19 and racially motivated police brutality. The higher rates of Black deaths from COVID-19 and the uprisings taking place in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others have created a movement that affirms “Black Lives Matter.” In response, Grand Rapids area healthcare systems are taking steps to create health equity. One example, Metro Health – University of Michigan Health has produced five videos to promote health equity.

“The video series is an opportunity to educate our employees and the broader community about the role that inequities play in the space of COVID-19 and in our everyday life,” says Dr. Rhae-Ann Booker, PhD, Metro Health vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “When I think of the stress of everyday racism, how it impairs health and impairs quality of life, I know that it’s critical that we address the inequities and prioritize the health of African Americans.”

The first video, Stark Health Inequities, shares how race, gender, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation determine risk in any health crisis, and specifically during the pandemic. It explains that racism is a social determinant of health that influences where people live and, hence, the quality of the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the water they drink.

“There are both physical and psychological impacts to racism, especially for African Americans,” Booker says. “The health of African Americans is significantly worse than whites in everything from shorter life expectancy, maternal-infant mortality rates, disparities in rates of disease, and premature death from chronic diseases.”

The second, Who Gets Left Behind, explains how economic disparities link to health disparities. The third, A Focus on Equity, talks about how it’s not enough to “just treat everyone the same.” The fourth, What is Xenophobia?, looks at how, like today, throughout history people have blamed those different than themselves for illness. The last, An All-access Future, brings up the need to address language, sight, hearing and cognitive abilities, and lack high-speed connectivity as barriers to health.

“We are developing the cultural competency of our employees, building their knowledge, skills, and will effectively engage with people across all backgrounds … sexual orientation, gender identification, and race,” Booker says. “We’re holding space for our employees to engage in constructive dialogue about these topics and also about the civil unrest in our community. They live and work in the broader community. They bring those concerns and questions into the workplace.”

Like Metro Health, Spectrum Health is expanding its efforts to address racial and ethnic health inequities in West Michigan and southwest Michigan through its Spectrum Health Lakeland division.

“We know that there are those in our neighborhoods who have suffered the brunt of racism, injustice, and health inequity,” says Freese Decker, president & CEO, Spectrum Health. “Their lives have too often been filled with suffering, and too often cut short as a result of disease and trauma.”

Cherry Health's CEO, Tasha Blackmon, hosted “Shifting from Moment to Movement” a Facebook live panel discussion on Juneteenth. The conversation focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, policing and policy changes, and organizational diversity and inclusion to address inequities in the local community.

Blackmon shares, "The reason why this work is so important to Cherry Health, and to health centers like Cherry Health, is because we were actually born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s." 

Mercy Health has issued the following statement. “Our communities are facing multiple hardships right now as a result of COVID-19 and racism, and we stand together with all those who are suffering. Our mission is to be a compassionate, healing presence in the communities we serve. We recognize there's much more that needs to be done. As a health system, we will continue to advocate for justice in order to change the inequities that exist among people of color.”

According to Booker, the healthcare institution as a whole needs to systemically prioritize the health outcomes of vulnerable populations, those experiencing biases based on race, gender, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation.

“For some, the disparities that have been exposed through COVID-19 is new information but, for many, this information has been within reach [before the pandemic],” she concludes. “During a crisis like we are facing with coronavirus, it becomes convenient to abandon commitments to principals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Interim Innovation News Editor
Photos courtesy Metro Health- University of Michigan Health

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