Michellene Davis can recall as recently as a year ago seeing sudden looks of disbelief and shock that would come over the faces of some of her colleagues when she proposed addressing “structural” or “systemic” racism as a means of reducing racial health disparities.
“I would watch their necks snap back, I would see them blink several times with this look of shock at hearing the term,” said Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at New Jersey-based RWJBarnabas Health.
But the heightened attention to systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—and the Black Lives Matter movement’s escalating activism—has shifted the kinds of discussions healthcare organizations are having about race, discrimination and health. Those talks have evolved from ignoring or minimizing the existence of systemic racism to searching for solutions to mitigate its effects on health.
“It seems that we are beyond the point of debating whether or not there is still racism in America,” Davis said. People call it structural racism because it is interwoven throughout systems and structures that originally created the platforms for why health disparities exist and those that permit it to continue.
Yet, many healthcare organizations struggle moving beyond talking points to action that can lead to substantive change.
“I believe there are a number of hospitals and healthcare organizations that are well-intentioned; they’ve talked about it and they’ve had groups in their organizations, but they haven’t laid out the concrete steps to actually get it done,” said Marvin O’Quinn, president and chief operating officer at CommonSpirit Health, one of the country’s largest health systems. “Until you take that next step you don’t get there.”