#WhiteCoatforBlackLives: Physicians Advocating for Social Justice

Blog by Dr Neha Pidatala

White Coats for Black Lives movement was ignited six years ago, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. In 2014, nationwide “die-in” protests were held in more than 75 medical schools in protest of police brutality. George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, Breonna Taylor’s in Louisville, Rayshard Brooks’s in Atlanta, Elijah McClain’s in Denver and countless others reignited this movement and brought attention to the long simmering frustration and anger in the black communities in response to systemic racism and discriminatory treatment by the police.

CREDITS: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
CREDITS: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

On June 5, 2020, many universities across the United States held protests by taking a knee for eight minutes and fort-six seconds to show their solidarity against the police brutality and other forms of systemic inequality. Many medical societies, clinicians and other healthcare organizations weighed in to support peaceful protests especially as the COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on racial inequities in the access of healthcare in the United States. I truly applaud the many universities and medical societies like the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Public Health Association for collectively standing against racial injustice and condemning racism and police brutality. American Association of Medical Colleges issued a press release that stated: “For too long, racism has been an ugly, destructive mark on America’s soul. Throughout our country’s history, racism has affected every aspect of our collective national life from-education to opportunity, personal safety to community stability, to the health of people in our cities large and small, and in Rural America.”

The health of our patients goes beyond physical exams, prescriptions and surgical interventions. Racism operates at multiple levels, ranging from the individual to structural and including but not limited to unequal educational opportunities, income gaps, healthcare access disparities and cultural beliefs. The ramifications of racism are often translated as higher death rates in Black communities for heart disease, cancer, asthma, HIV/AIDS, influenza, pregnancy-related complications and homicide. Research reports overwhelming evidence that Black patients are less likely to receive the care they need including adequate analgesia, cancer screening and organ transplants. This is due to both physician bias and healthcare payment structure’s financial disincentives for the care of people of color.

Socioeconomic and environmental factors including structural racism directly impacts patient’s health and as a doctor and woman of color, I feel a strong moral and professional obligation to advocate for patients and to provide medical care on the principle of justice. Justice is one of the tenets of medical ethics; beneficence, nonmaleficence and respect for autonomy being the other tenets. Bioethicists refer to justice as “form of fairness.” This implies the fair distribution of resources in society. Many of the inequalities we experience are a result of “social lottery” for which the individuals are not to blame, therefore society ought to help even the playing field by providing resources to help overcome the disadvantaged situations.

Physicians, nurses and public health professionals have asserted their unwavering commitment in reducing health disparities and advocating for social justice by participating in peaceful protests, confronting and mitigating implicit bias, reforming the standards, homogenous representation of white males in medical education and engaging with representatives and policymakers to demand a change in law, practice and policy. Medical students are among the nearly two hundred people who testified in Senate in support of Senate Concurrent Resolution No.14(S.C.R.No.14), a bill introduced in Ohio state to declare racism a public health crisis. I hope that even after the pandemic is contained and the protest conclude, we continue to confront and address racial inequity by improving access to quality care, reforming the healthcare delivery system, improving cultural understanding and diversifying the healthcare workforce.

As a nation, we should collectively take this opportunity to engage in making an investment for substantive changes to confront and address our society’s racial, ethnic and cultural inequities and work towards the creation of equitable societies. Together, we can do better and we must do better to be an ally to our Black brothers and sisters.

 

Resources

The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) has shared best practices, resources and curated news through the health equity lens for learning and action. https://www.nyam.org/what-can-i-do/racism-violence-and-health/

White coats for Black lives organization-https://whitecoats4blacklives.org/

 

Dr. Neha Pidatala serves as a consultant at NYU Langone Health, New York.Her research interests include outcomes research, health services research and quality of care. She is most passionate about medical ethics, patient advocacy and health policy. Neha tweets at @DrNehaPidatala.

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