Conley Lecturer to discuss consequences of, solutions to, racism in medicine

Michele Harper, MD
Michele Harper, MD

Racism in medicine is real. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has underlined glaring racial and ethnic disparities in infection rates, emergency department use, hospitalization, and outcomes across the country.

“Racism is built into the way we do business,” said Michele Harper, MD, a New York-area emergency physician. “If we are going to make changes in medicine, we must engage more meaningfully with the topic and be utterly honest about the consequences. There are reams of data showing that societies that are more equitable have better outcomes.”

Dr. Harper will explore the personal side of racism in medicine during the John J. Conley Ethics and Philosophy Lecture, Call It by Its True Name: Forms, Textures, and Implications of Anti-Black Racism in Medicine, at 1:00 pm Central Time on Wednesday, October 27.

Racism exacts a toll on surgeons and other health care providers, on patients, and on society as a whole, Dr. Harper said. She noted that it’s easy to frame racism as something that happens to somebody else—Black people, Brown people, or people of lower socioeconomic status. However, racism affects all of us, at every stratum.

“A rich person in this nation has worse outcomes than a rich person in similarly resourced countries around the world,” Dr. Harper said. “That reality has been demonstrated by data collected by researchers outside the U.S., as well as by researchers in this country. In addressing racism, in reducing disparities, in making medicine more equitable, we all have so much to gain.”

Racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is nothing new, but seldom has the public—and medicine—given the topic so much attention for so long as during the past year. Just as COVID-19 underlined disparities in medical access, care, and outcomes, the 2020 murder of George Floyd by an officer while in police custody underlined racism in law enforcement and other segments of society.

As an emergency department physician, Dr. Harper has seen COVID-19 expose and exacerbate racism across the front lines—in health care and beyond.

“Racism hits the people who keep us going during a pandemic—the people working in supermarkets, pharmacies, transportation, gig workers,” she said. “These are too often lower wage jobs without benefits. Many of these people are Black and Brown and immigrants. They have been suffering the greatest burden of this pandemic while we have been surviving on their backs. What is unique about this time is that we, collectively, are more sensitized to it. More people are receptive to having discussions about racism and, God willing, moving to action.”

Changing racist behavior starts with recognizing it, yet many people are unwilling to recognize their own attitudes about race.

“We have discussed racism in medicine and in surgery, but it has largely been in a performative way,” Dr. Harper said. “If we are going to make a change in medicine, we have to be honest about the consequences of racism and what it looks like to have something different in our field, to have accountability. And we have to see that it benefits our patients, it benefits society, and it benefits us.”

It starts with talking about racism, actively hearing the reality, and sharing personal experiences.

It can be as direct as one-on-one conversations with other surgeons, Dr. Harper said, or paying attention to how patients act and react.

“It can be as simple as looking around the table at an administrative meeting to see who is at that table, making decisions, and who is not at the table,” she added. “It’s reading the literature and studies to educate oneself, and then making changes to address those inequities.”

This lecture and other Clinical Congress 2021 sessions are available to registered attendees for on-demand viewing for a full year following Congress on the virtual meeting platform.