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Thursday, April 22, 2021

I’m Just Sayin’: This is how Black people die

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Dr. Susan Moore’s powerful words are both compelling and an all too real concern among large segments of the Black community in hospital settings.

These words capture the anger, frustration and distrust of the health care systems earned by years of indifference to Black bodies — especially Black women, where we need only look at a maternal and infant mortality rate that was and remains too high in our community, despite recent progress.

IU Health is the latest and most high-profile local health care system to face public scrutiny over their treatment of a Black patient — no less a doctor in their care — but it isn’t the only system that has had similar issues.

Early in the outbreak of COVID-19, the fear in our community was that local health care systems in general were sending Black people home to die. Only recently, community leaders had to intercede on the behalf of another community leader at a local hospital.

It is a shame that when Black people send their loved ones to a hospital, they must have an advocacy plan to overcome indifference to Black bodies and our pain.

We have to speak our truths about these things in order for it to get better. This is a community-wide problem, and we do ourselves a disservice to focus on one health care system. All of them are implicated.

No doubt IU Health has its side of the story. It has its truth too.

IU Health has made missteps and because Dr. Moore reminds me of my mother, I’d love nothing more than to give that entire health system a piece of my mind. But the goal isn’t screaming at the insensitivity of a comment.  

The goal should be to stop Black people from dying needlessly — or even feeling like they are getting less than the care they deserve. The goal should be improving Black patient outcomes.

One approach to the goal is to address systemic racism within our local health care systems. Just over two months ago, IU Health, Eskenazi Health and Community Health Network declared racism a public health emergency and pledged to do the following:

· Address and reduce discrimination among team members, patients and guests.

· Improve the demographic makeup of organization leaders, with a particular focus on people of color.

· Improve the equity of care by regularly measuring, monitoring and improving the care provided to underserved populations.

· Identify, research, understand and address racial disparities in health care access and outcomes.

· Work with other community organizations to develop, endorse and provide support for creative solutions to social determinants of health, especially affordable housing, food security and workforce development.

To be fair, our local health care systems at a minimum have recognized that there is a problem.

IU Health, to its credit, raised its minimum wage for its employees and is targeting $15 an hour. It a rather ambitious redevelopment plan for a “health district” in downtown Indianapolis and has also developed a $100 million community investment fund.

IU Health even recently partnered with Crispus Attucks on an educational initiative to improve access to health care careers.

CEO Dennis Murphy has also called for an external review of Dr. Moore’s treatment.

But from a community perspective, all of this is up against a doctor who died and a 19-year-old who lost his mother right now.

It is certainly much easier to declare racism as a public health crisis than to do the work of taking it on.

At minimum, we have learned that the work IU Health, Eskenazi Health and Community Health Network committed to is necessary and that it will take some time.

The question is how will they change their operations to meet the standards they have set for themselves? What will their boards look like? What will the leadership look like? How will they seek Black community input on their standards?

Will they be merely allies making statements and pledges or accomplices unambiguously doing the work of racial equity?

For systems that can shift to addressing COVID-19 there certainly is capacity to make changes.

Our community wants and deserves more than the pledge to be better.

What I’m hearing….

Black organizations had already planned an effort to get a deeper understanding of the meaning and the work behind the racial equity pledge three major hospital systems took back in October. The objective from Black leaders seems to be to create a space for the Black community to speak directly to the CEOs in a virtual setting.

This is no time for Black faces in high places.

Many in the community missed that the hospital systems took a stance on racial health disparities and patient outcomes, so it is a necessary step in an initiative that is only months old.

The conversation about how hospitals treat Black patients is obviously connected to apprehension about the COVID-19 vaccine and the larger health care systems’ treatment of Black people and our bodies.  

This needs to be a moment where we find solutions to a problem that has lasted too long. Black people deserve better when they go to the hospital.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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