Guest editorial: Shining a light on racial disparity in health care

Guest editorial: Shining a light on racial disparity in health care

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George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. These are the names of three recent victims of violence against people of color (POC); a violence that remains rampant in our country. I want to believe that I am a part of a community of healers who have dedicated their lives to improving the human condition of others.

Since its first class that started medical school in 2011, COMP-Northwest has consistently joined the Lebanon community in leading long-term change in a variety of matters, especially items that are health outcome related. As the nation now grapples with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and racial violence encountered by unarmed African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers, COMP-Northwest medical students have found themselves developing unique perspectives. Just as POC, especially African Americans, experience sub-optimal and sometimes dangerous experiences with law enforcement, these groups of people also find themselves on the margins of the health care system in the US; they often experience inequitable and dangerously sub-standard care and inevitably have poor outcomes compared to Caucasians with similar diseases. Shortage of physicians from racially oppressed groups is a major factor that perpetuates race-based disparities in health outcomes for Americans.

In 2018, medical student leaders (Jordan Rashaun Bilbrew, Giulia Di Bella, and Jan Andrea Garo) from COMP-Northwest came together and created the DREAM Program (Diversity Recognized Emphasized and Assimilated into Medicine), an outreach program dedicated to improving the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing medicine. One might ask, “How does this address the issue of African Americans (and other POC) improving their healthcare outcomes?” Research shows physicians from under-represented racial/ethnic groups are likely to be able to better identify and empathize with racially/ethnically marginalized patients. A study conducted at UCLA found that medical students who attend racially and ethnically diverse medical schools feel that they are better equipped to serve a diverse patient population.

As much as the DREAM program was founded to enrich the lives of the participants, it was also founded to help educate the importance of diversity and inclusion in medicine to our medical student volunteers. We had the DREAMers share their stories of racism and the adversities they faced in pursuing their dreams, and I can only hope that my white colleagues were listening when they were given that opportunity. Instead of saying, “Thank you for sharing” to the hardships we hear that afflict POC, say “I’m listening” because it is evident, as a country and the greater health care community, that we have not been. We need to be better. As my brother and colleague, Bilbrew (COMP-Northwest's first African American student), said: “Don’t let their black tears be shed in vain."

Now, increasing the number of brown and black physicians will help the issue outlined above, but what will help the most is if every single medical student could do their part and educate themselves on the hardships that their brown and black colleagues face every day, and how the events of modern day are affecting them. As Bilbrew so eloquently put, “If this understanding of racial injustices against African Americans was a pop quiz, you would be failing.” As aspiring physicians and leaders in the field of medicine, we need to treat the importance of understanding our own racial and implicit biases as important as understanding when to give nitrates in a left versus right sided myocardial infarction. Implicit bias kills.

Omar Rachdi is entering his fourth year as a medical student at COMP-NW

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