Utah health care leaders declare systemic racism a public health crisis

The Beehive State’s hospital systems announced a collaboration Tuesday to address health inequities, disparities exposed by COVID-19.

(Screenshot from Zoom) Dr. Marc Harrison, CEO and president of Intermountain Healthcare, speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, with Utah's other health care leaders to declare systemic racism a public health crisis.

Systemic racism is a public health crisis, according to Utah’s health care leaders, and they say they are working together to eliminate disparities that patients face.

“If we had any doubt whatsoever about whether race affected the health of communities and individuals, the pandemic has absolutely clarified that,” said Dr. Marc Harrison, CEO and president of Intermountain Healthcare, in a virtual news conference Tuesday. He was joined by the heads of University of Utah Health, the Utah Hospital Association, MountainStar Healthcare and Steward Health Care.

In addition to being motivated by COVID-19, Harrison and the others said they decided to collaborate after seeing racial injustice in 2020 and the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among other Black people.

“At University of Utah Health, we believe that Black lives matter,” said Dr. Michael Good, CEO and dean of the school of medicine. “... We believe that systemic anti-Black racism is one of the major causes of health disparities that we observe in our society.”

These issues aren’t going to be solved overnight, Good said, because “being anti-racist takes an ongoing commitment.” But that’s what he and the other health care leaders said they plan to do.

Change will require investing money in the community “to create jobs and rebuild strained and decimated economies,” as well as buying locally sourced goods, according to a statement from the health care providers.

They also said they are reshaping leadership and improving hiring programs to build pipelines for people of color to enter health care careers. They also said they “vow to listen to our patients and colleagues of color and to learn from their experiences.”

In the health care field, there are people who “don’t feel like they’ve always gotten a fair shake when they’ve raised concerns around racism,” Harrison said. That’s why Intermountain has hired an advocate, who will serve as a third-party ombudsperson, “to address these issues and make sure that things are handled in a fair and equitable fashion at all times,” he said.

To address COVID-19, the health care organizations are partnering with the Utah Department of Health and local health departments to provide services and personal protective equipment to marginalized communities, as well as educational programs such as the Emotional Health Relief Hotline, the HERO Project, #MaskUpUtah and ProjectProtect.

The Beehive State has seen “strikingly disproportionate cases of COVID-19 in our communities of color,” said Dr. Paloma Cariello, associate dean for health equity, diversity and inclusion at the U.’s school of medicine. Hispanics and Latinos make up 14.2% of the population but roughly 22% of cases, according to data reported Tuesday by the state health department. Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders account for 1.6% of the population and 2.5% of cases, the data shows.

“There’s nothing particular about the color of a person’s skin ... or the language that they speak at home that makes them particularly at risk for COVID,” Harrison said. “It’s how do they live? What resources do they have? What kind of transportation do they have? Do they have stable housing? Do they have food on their table?”

As Utah leaders continue roll out the state’s vaccination plan, it’s important for communities of color to have access to immunizations, “regardless of what they look like and what languages they speak and where in town they live,” according to Harrison. Community health workers will be crucial in that effort, he said.

The pandemic “has opened our eyes” to health disparities, Cariello said, but inequities “existed long before COVID-19,” and there’s an abundance of data showing that people of color often receive lower-quality care. For instance, black infants are three times more likely to die if they’re cared for by a white physician, she said, “and that needs immediate action.”

Dr. Sean Esplin, who is Intermountain’s senior medical director for women’s health, has “looked carefully at some of our outcomes around race and childbirth and infant mortality and ... discovered, like the rest of the country, we have opportunities for improvement,” Harrison said.

Equitable health care for everybody “is absolutely within our grasp,” he said, “should we take it on in an honest and straightforward manner.”

Think of how long ... it took the country to get to wear seat belts and understand that was an important safety concern. Think how long it ... has taken the country to understand about smoking,” said Dr. Arlen Jarrett, chief medical officer of Steward Health Care. There will be challenges, he said, but they’re taking a step forward.

Utah’s health care leaders coming together and saying that systemic racism is a public health crisis is “not a political statement” or a response to any political party, leader or event, said Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.

“We’re simply saying that we can do better. We will do better. And we must do better,” Bell said.