Message from the CEO: Hope for fighting racial injustice

The word “hope” commonly appears in tag lines of hospitals and health systems. There is a reason for this. Hope is what we have in the face of tough diagnoses and challenging recoveries. It is also what we have when the bad news keeps coming and it seems that our world is on fire.

A global pandemic is still taking many lives and changing all others. The economy has left people unemployed and vulnerable. And tension is appearing in cities nationwide as protests unfold and issues of race resurface. 

In the face of these seemingly massive and intractable problems, what can we do in the health care field to offer hope? What can we do to make our state more equitable and unified?

First we must acknowledge that racial disparities exist in health care. As much as health care providers want to see themselves grounded in objectivity, study after study shows that African Americans experience poorer health outcomes—even after controlling for other factors.

As one current example, we know already that minorities are suffering from COVID-19 infection and death at a disproportionally high rate. “If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans, about 13,000 Black Americans, 1,300 Latino Americans and 300 Asian Americans would still be alive” (APM Research Lab).

Vermont is not immune—African American Vermonters are testing positive for COVID-19 at the highest rate of any racial group.

The health care field, together with government and other partners, can help change this reality.  Last week, Gov. Scott took a solid step when he announced formation of a Racial Equity Task Force charged with reducing racial disparities in health outcomes.

This is important work VAHHS supports. As Gov. Scott acknowledged, a task force is not a “cure-all.” We, as institutions and individuals, must lead with daily action. Even simple steps:

  • listen to a perspective you haven’t considered before,
  • invite a new person to join a social group or public service organization,
  • sponsor or join a community dialogue (on any important issue),
  • donate time, money and brain power to groups and efforts that bring people together

Health disparities were with us long before COVID-19 and demand our attention now more than ever. As Martin Luther King said at a medical convention in 1966, “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

To address health disparities, we should avail ourselves of knowledge and resources already available, just one example of which is here, and keep building that body of work. As individuals and groups, we should make efforts to hear and trust one another. And always remember the way we experience the world is not how others do.

Jeff Tieman, VAHHS President and CEO