Episode #107 – A Call to Eliminate Systemic Racism in Healthcare, with Michellene Davis Esq & Alisahah Cole MD

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new light on the deep-rooted disparities and inequities that are built into the fabric of our American healthcare system. Triggered in part by the pandemic, as well as a number of deeply disturbing episodes of racist police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re experiencing a national re-awakening of concern regarding systemic and institutional racism in our society.

Our two distinguished guests in this interview, Dr. Alisahah Cole and Michellene Davis, are nationally recognized leaders in the movement to eliminate healthcare disparities.

Michellene Davis, Esq. is currently the Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at RWJBarnabas Health, the largest academic healthcare system in New Jersey. She is an attorney and has held positions at the senior most tier of government, including as State Treasurer, Chief Policy Counsel to a Governor, and CEO of a state lottery. Dr. Alisahah Cole is currently the System Vice President of Population Health & Policy at CommonSpirit Health, one of the largest integrated healthcare systems in the United States. She is a Family Medicine physician and has held multiple leadership positions including as Chief Community Impact Officer and Academic Chair, implementing novel approaches to improve health equity in vulnerable populations.

This interview was recorded last month as a panel discussion during a virtual conference on patient experience. The topic was originally intended to be a discussion on the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). But we felt that it would be culturally tone-deaf and socially irresponsible to discuss the SDOH without recognizing systemic and institutional racism as a root cause of the inequities and disparities in health care delivery and health outcomes.

With that in mind, this panel discussion includes:

  1. A passionate discussion on this most recent ‘awakening of awareness’ about the systemic & institutional racism in our society – including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. The manifestations of systemic, institutional & interpersonal racism in healthcare.
  3. Practical, real-life recommendations regarding a systematic, data-driven approach to identify, understand & eliminate racism in healthcare.

In addition to bringing their experience as clinicians and executives, Michellene and Alisahah also share their lived experience as professional Black women. The stories they share are honest, courageous, and at times, unsettling. For example, Michellene shares that, unlike her white colleagues, she does not have the luxury of putting racism aside, even for a moment. Alisahah shares that, as the mother of two teenage Black boys, she worries for their lives, literally, each time they leave home to venture outside.

This conversation challenges the very core of our humanity – in our communities, our corporations, our social institutions and our government. One lesson this interview taught me is that the issue of ‘social determinants of health’ needs to be reframed in terms of eliminating the racial disparities and inequities in healthcare and in our broader society. Another is that good intention is not enough – we need to take sustained systemic action.

There are so many lessons embedded in this podcast. Lessons about listening and building trust. Lessons about the unhealthful effects of racism on Americans of color. Lessons about the need to fundamentally reorient, redesign, reorganize and appropriately resource healthcare delivery so that it meets the needs of vulnerable populations. And lessons about the need to expand healthcare delivery beyond traditional medical boundaries – to apply a racial equity lens to how we reframe our education system, our criminal justice system, our housing and urban development system, our transportation system, our social services systems, our labor system, and our public health system.

This was the most important interview I’ve conducted to date. I say that with Martin Luther King’s words ringing in my ears. Words that, sadly enough, have as much relevance today as they did when he delivered them over five decades ago, during a 1966 speech before the 2nd National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death. I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.
Martin Luther King

Until Next Time, Be Well