Pandemic highlights racial health disparities in Indiana

Health

INDIANAPOLIS- COVID-19 punctured an already bleeding healthcare system.

“We know improvement in your health comes by treating the underlying condition– so our country needs to treat their… our underlying condition (racism),” explained Dr. Myrtice Macon, a retired Black anesthesiologist.

The pandemic fully unveiled how race and healthcare collide; in mid-July, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released data on Covid-19 racial disparities.

CDC researchers found when compared to white Americans, Native Americans were about 3.4 times more likely to be hospitalized; Black and Hispanic Americans 2.8 times… and Asian Americans 1.0 times. The agency’s statistics also show people of color were also almost twice as likely to die from the coronavirus.

“We know that healthcare disparities is a phenomena that’s centuries-old, yet right now, the pandemic has uncovered this disparity, and now there’s urgency to address it,” said the retired physician, who practiced for 38 years.

Dr. Macon isn’t shocked by these numbers or that they are reflected among Hoosiers as well.

“It is the same question that was posed to me my first day of medical school, and that is, ‘As a country, are we addressing healthcare delivery as a right… or are we practicing healthcare delivery as a privilege?‘” she said.

The former anesthesiologist says the pandemic’s shown the nation that healthcare is often a privilege, and one not afforded to all Hoosiers. Not having access to or funds for quality care led to the very underlying health conditions that make contracting Covid-19 more severe, and deadly.

Early in the pandemic, the Indiana State Department of Health’s numbers mirrored the national data on racial health disparities.

An April 2020 FOX59 report found the virus was disproportionately killing more Hoosiers of color.

Spring 2020 racial demographic breakdown of Hoosier Covid-19 deaths.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box noted then that Black Hoosiers made up about 10% of the state. Yet, “18.5% of our cases have been among our African American population compared with nearly 50% among our white population. When we look at deaths, we found that a little over 19.2% occurred among our African American population. These disparities among our African American population mirror what we see with other health metrics that we know to be significant risk factors for death with the COVID-19 disease and that is diabetes and heart disease.”

More than a year later, and Hoosiers of color are still seeing the impacts of racial health disparities.

Now Dr. Macon, and 10 congregations are working with IU Health to address racism in healthcare, and the disparities it causes. They, like other groups, hope to help hospital systems tackle this through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

“And so if I’ve gone to the ER seeking care, I’ve been looked at as just a single, Black woman, who— No one cares about a title at that point,” detailed Rev. Shonda Nicole Gladden, of Crossroads AME Church. “There are so many members of our congregation for whom that is the same reality.”

Rev. Gladden organized these churches through her organization, Healthy Me Learning Community. Together, the group asks healthcare systems tough questions.

“How can the system see the Black patient as human in the same way that they may see their sister, their brother, their child coming into a space of need,” she questioned.

Several times over two months, we reached out to the region’s three major hospital systems for interviews about their DEI plans to address disparities, including racial ones.

Despite extending our interview window, IU Health and Community Health declined. The latter provided a previous press release about the hiring of Community Health’s first diversity and inclusion officer. In it, officials say, “Community Health Network is committed to ending systemic racism in our workplace and community.” The new hire will oversee an already existing program to tackle race and healthcare. A hospital spokesperson also provided a series of podcasts discussing this matter.

However, Ascension Saint Vincent did answer our questions in an interview.

“We do have a commitment to ending systemic racism and injustice,” said Laura Atkinson, senior director of human resources at the hospital.

To do that Ascension St. Vincent launched a program, ABIDE.

“… this framework helps us recognize what we need to do to review and rebuild our policies, practice ways of working to that– what we need so that we can eliminate what perpetuates disparities and inequities,” Atkinson explained.

An ABIDE statewide council will look into race and healthcare in the hospital system, “starting with inclusion before diversity because it doesn’t matter if your workforce is diverse if you’re not included,” she reinforced.

Several community advocates applaud this type of action but say they want more, and that starts for some by looking at the past to better the future.

The 2019 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report found in the last 2 decades, healthcare access has significantly improved, but in some cases, racial disparities remained or even got worse.

For 40% of health quality measures, Black and Native Americans received worse care than white Americans; it was more than 33% for Hispanic Americans; in 30 percent of categories, Asian Americans received worse care than white Americans.

One pastor says addressing this today creates a healthier Indiana for all tomorrow.

“The humanity of all of us sometimes gets lost in talks of healthcare and treatment and these things,” said Aaron Hobbs, a pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. “So if we care about one another—that all of these things– that anyone is having inequity in any system then we need to address these things and do our best to work together toward a solution.”

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