Structural racism and implicit bias are connected, and both must be addressed to move from awareness of racism to action, said Nathan Chomilo, MD, of HealthPartners/Park Nicollet, Brooklyn Center, Minn., in a presentation at the virtual Pediatric Hospital Medicine annual conference.
“We need pediatricians with the courage to address racism head on,” he said.
One step in moving from awareness to action against structural and institutional racism in medicine is examining policies, Dr. Chomilo said. He cited the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 as examples of how policy changes can make a difference, illustrated by data from 1955-1975 that showed a significant decrease in infant deaths among Black infants in Mississippi after 1965.
Medicaid expansion has helped to narrow, but not eliminate, racial disparities in health care, Dr. Chomilo said. The impact of Medicare and Medicaid is evident in the current COVID-19 pandemic, as county level data show that areas where more than 25% of the population are uninsured have higher rates of COVID-19 infections, said Dr. Chomilo. Policies that impact access to care also impact their incidence of chronic diseases and risk for severe disease, he noted.
“If you don’t have ready access to a health care provider, you don’t have access to the vaccine, and you don’t have information that would inform your getting the vaccine,” he added.
Prioritizing the power of voting
“Voting is one of many ways we can impact structural racism in health care policy,” Dr. Chomilo emphasized.
However, voting inequity remains a challenge, Dr. Chomilo noted. Community level disparities lead to inequity in voting access and subsequent disparities in voter participation, he said. “Leaders are less responsive to nonvoting constituents,” which can result in policies that impact health inequitably, and loop back to community level health disparities, he explained.
Historically, physicians have had an 8%-9% lower voter turnout than the general public, although this may have changed in recent elections, Dr. Chomilo said. He encouraged all clinicians to set an example and vote, and to empower their patients to vote. Evidence shows that enfranchisement of Black voters is associated with reductions in education gaps for Blacks and Whites, and that enfranchisement of women is associated with increased spending on children and lower child mortality, he said. Dr. Chomilo encouraged pediatricians and all clinicians to take advantage of the resources on voting available from the American Academy of Pediatrics (.
“When we see more people in a community vote, leaders are more responsive to their needs,” he said.
Informing racial identity
“Racial identity is informed by racial socialization,” Dr. Chomilo said. “All of us are socialized along the lines of race; it happens in conversations with parents, family, peers, community.” Another point in moving from awareness to action in eliminating structural racism is recognizing that children are not too young to talk about race, Dr. Chomilo emphasized.
Children start to navigate racial identity and to take note of other differences at an early age. For example, a 3-year-old might ask, “why does that person talk funny, why is that person being pushed in a chair?” Dr. Chomilo said, and it is important for parents and as pediatricians to be prepared for these questions, which are part of normal development. As children get older, they start to reflect on what differences mean for them, which is not rooted in anything negative, he noted.
Children first develop racial identity at home, but children solidify their identities in child care and school settings, Dr. Chomilo said. The American Academy of Pediatrics has acknowledged the potential for racial bias in education and child care, and said in a statement that, “it is critical for pediatricians to recognize the institutional personally mediated, and internalized levels of racism that occur in the educational setting, because education is a critical social determinant of health for children.” In fact, data from children in preschool show that they use racial categories to identify themselves and others, to include or exclude children from activities, and to negotiate power in their social and play networks.
Early intervention matters in educating children about racism, Dr. Chomilo said. “If we were not taught to talk about race, it is on us to learn about it ourselves as well,” he said.
Ultimately, the goal is to create active antiracism among adults and children, said Dr. Chomilo. He encouraged pediatricians and parents not to shut down or discourage children when they raise questions of race, but to take the opportunity to teach. “There may be hurt feelings around what a child said, even if they didn’t mean to offend someone,” he noted. Take the topic seriously, and make racism conversations ongoing; teach children to safely oppose negative messages and behaviors in others, and replace them with something positive, he emphasized.
Addressing bias in clinical settings
Dr. Chomilo also encouraged hospitalists to consider internalized racism in clinical settings and take action to build confidence and cultural pride in all patients by ensuring that a pediatric hospital unit is welcoming and representative of the diversity in a given community, with appropriate options for books, movies, and toys. He also encouraged pediatric hospitalists to assess children for experiences of racism as part of a social assessment. Be aware of signs of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, depression, or grief that might have a racial component, he said.
Dr. Chomilo had no financial conflicts to disclose.