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Health Equity

Bold Action and Big Funds Address Systemic Racism in Health Care

Black Americans don’t see many clinicians who look like them in the doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals where they get care. That’s because only 5% of U.S. doctors are Black, a number not likely to increase significantly in the near future, since only 7% of current medical students are Black. So how can health care systems promote health equity?

A shortage of Black physicians erodes trust among Black patients in the health care system as a whole, and it discourages many Black Americans from seeking necessary care altogether.

The pandemic has focused a bright light on the real and severe consequences. Black Americans continue to die from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.

The shortage of Black doctors is a serious problem that requires bold, immediate and tangible action.

CommonSpirit Health, the parent company of Dignity Health, is one of the few health systems that truly understands this. And the system has put its money where its mouth is, quite literally. It has partnered with the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), a historically Black medical school, in a $100 million initiative to train more than 300 minority doctors over the next decade.

“We’re immediately leveraging our partnership to address health inequities magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” commented MSM President and Dean Valerie Montgomery Rice. “Together, we will foster a culturally competent system of care that includes testing, care delivery and vaccine allocation, directed at the most vulnerable populations to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in racial and ethnic communities.”

Program participants will be recruited from underserved communities and spend the last two years of their four-year training in one of five designated CommonSpirit hospitals across the country; at least one of these sites will be in California at a Dignity Health facility. All of the training sites will be located in the communities that are home to minority patients, so that they can start receiving care from physicians who mirror their own image as soon as possible.

The impacts of this initiative are far-reaching. Most immediately, the program will double MSM’s student class size, from 100 to 200, and triple the number of graduate medical education slots for residency training over the next 10 years.

Programs like these have a history of success. The University of California’s Programs in Medical Education (UC PRIME), for example, is a medical school program with a special curriculum designed to help students meet the needs of underserved populations. There are six PRIME campuses, and 64% of PRIME students come from groups that are underrepresented in medicine.

Like UC Prime before it, the MSM program will serve as a model for other historically Black medical schools — and their potential health system partners.

A call to action from the highest level

A program like this is, of course, only possible when leadership drives it. And few health care leaders are more committed to addressing health inequities than CommonSpirit CEO Lloyd Dean. Dean said, “America is supposed to be a nation of equality, but there is nothing equal about America’s health system. For people of color, there often are vast disparities — in access, treatment and outcomes. As healers, we know it doesn’t have to be this way. As humans, we know it just isn’t right. And as problem solvers, we know it can be changed.”

Dignity Health prioritizes active work to address health equity issues, both to improve outcomes for its patients of color and to improve the professional path for clinicians of color. “It is important for future generations that we see representation of people of color in all walks of life at every level,” Dean remarked, “because it sends the message that you can be what you want to be if you prepare yourself and you work hard.

“We have to continue to move forward, we have to call out injustices. We have to reach back with a helping hand and pull somebody else forward.” And that’s exactly what Dignity Health is doing.