As healthcare leaders reflect on one year of the pandemic disrupting everyday life, there should be a discussion about how to address the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on Black communities.
While the pandemic has shined a light on healthcare inequities facing minority communities, these barriers to quality care are not new. Over a century ago, we experienced another pandemic– the 1918 Flu. Though some experts believe segregation led to fewer Black Americans contracting the 1918 Flu, data shows that when Black patients contracted the virus, they were more likely to die. Fast forward to today and Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people due to Covid-19.
It’s clear we have work to do. Together, healthcare innovators and physicians like myself should come together and pave a more equitable path forward so that all patients – regardless of race, gender or zip code – can receive quality healthcare when and where they need it.
Below are just a few steps that we can take:
Build trusted relationships
We can help improve healthcare for underserved populations by fostering a trusting patient-doctor relationship. To do this, we should acknowledge that unethical healthcare and scientific practices from our past, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment have led to mistrust in our healthcare system. We have seen this mistrust in Black patients’ Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy today.
The benefit of trusted relationships is ultimately better health outcomes. If physicians can offer ongoing touchpoints and communication, not just when patients are not feeling well, but also when they feel great, we can use these longitudinal relationships to focus on preventative care needs, too.
We can also help mitigate mistrust in the healthcare system by proactively focusing on bringing more diversity to healthcare. Currently, women make up a third of the physician workforce, Black physicians make up 5% and Black women only 2%.
Prioritize social determinants of health
As we build trusted relationships, we should also address the non-clinical factors that influence quality care. For example, societal barriers have left some minorities communities in food deserts and areas with limited green space, which leads to lack of nutritious food options and impacts patient well-being. It’s critical that we build care plans that address these factors so we can ensure patients get their needs met both inside and outside of the doctor’s office.
I see the impact of social determinants of health on outcomes every day. Suppose I know that my patient has a poor diet due to limited options for quality nutritious food in their neighborhood. I can then create a plan that takes this into account and helps the patient make the best nutritional choices based on what they have access to. This is also why it is critical to have a trusted relationship with patients to ask these non-clinical questions.
Expand access to telehealth
Lastly, we should seek opportunities to increase telehealth access in Black communities. Research shows that telehealth usage is lower amongst minority communities despite the rapid rise in demand for telehealth due to Covid-19. During the height of the pandemic, Black patients were 4.3 times more likely to use the emergency room over telehealth than their white peers. We must bridge this gap and ensure Black communities and economically disadvantaged groups have access to telehealth services, which can lower expensive and often preventable emergency room visits.
To improve access to telehealth, policymakers should start by making the policies that expanded telehealth access during the pandemic permanent. We must also continue closing the digital divide and provide our vulnerable communities with the devices and broadband needed to connect with doctors when and where they want.
Let’s not return to the status quo in healthcare “post-Covid-19.” Let’s rise to the moment and ensure our minority communities have access to quality care now and during any future global healthcare events. These are just a few approaches to help close gaps in care for the Black community.
Photo: Ada Yokota, Getty Images