Nathan Chomilo, MD, the Medicaid medical director for the state of Minnesota and assistant adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, was prepared to deliver a talk on structural racism in the U.S. health care system at Hospital Medicine 2020 meeting (HM20) in April 2020. But that changed in the COVID-19 era.
When the pandemic hit, the problems Dr. Chomilo was going to point out began to play out dramatically around the country: Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people – many of them under-insured; in high-exposure, frontline jobs; and already burdened with health comorbidities – are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it.
He will now be giving his talk at HM20 Virtual in a session called “Structural Racism and Bias in Hospital Medicine During Two Pandemics,” with the powerful narrative of COVID-19 to get his message to sink in:
“It’s something that’s been going on since the start of our country,” said Dr. Chomilo, who is also a founding member of Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity. Physicians, he said, participated in upholding the institution of slavery by trying to describe the physical discrepancies between White people and non-White people.
Now, the way health care is provided in the United States fundamentally favors Whites over Black, Indigenous, and Latinx patients.
“We have a health care system here in the United States that is based on employer-sponsored insurance,” he said. “And who has had access to those jobs over the course of our country’s history has been mostly White people.” That impacts who is more at risk of contracting the virus, who is able to shelter in place, and who has the financial reserves to withstand furloughs and unemployment.
In a recent blog post in, Dr. Chomilo and his coauthors discussed articles from the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association that try to offer an ethical framework for allocating scarce medical resources – such as intensive-care beds and ventilators – during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, neither article acknowledged the structural racial inequities that inherently bias its proposals, nor did either piece adequately acknowledge how its care rationing plan might worsen already racially disparate health outcomes,” Dr. Chomilo and his coauthors wrote. For instance, the life expectancy of a White female in the United States is 81 years, compared with 72 years for Black males, and any allocation plan that prioritizes preserving years of life would automatically be tilted against black patients.
In his talk, Dr. Chomilo will also discuss how physicians can make a difference by looking at their own perceptions and habits and then start helping others and the systems in which they work.
“The first thing is, we have to look at ourselves,” he said.
In the same session, Benji Mathews, MD, SFHM – chief of hospital medicine at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., which is part of HealthPartners; associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; and the Annual Conference’s course director – said he will be discussing the way social inequities are “patterned by place” and how resources for staying healthy vary neighborhood to neighborhood. He will point to dense housing and multigenerational households as a chief driver of COVID-19 infection risk. People of color are often “first fired, last hired, and in the front lines of fire,” he said, and they are experiencing a more severe impact from the pandemic.
And he will get deeper into the other disparities that track along racial lines, such as insurance disparities. For instance, the percentage of African Americans on Medicaid is three times as high as the percentage of White, non-Hispanic patients, he said.
Dr. Mathews will also discuss race’s role in the biases that everyone has and how health care professionals might, with deliberate reflection, be able to reshape or mitigate their own biases and deliver care more equitably.
“The associations we have, and our biases, are not necessarily declared beliefs or even reflect our stances that we explicitly endorse – sometimes it comes through in our default stance, and generally favor our in-group,” he said. “These implicit biases are malleable, so that allows us some hope. There are some ways they can be unlearned or progressively acted upon with some coaching – some active, intentional development.”
Structural Racism and Bias in Hospital Medicine During Two Pandemics