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Thousands of clinicians sign letter vowing to dismantle racial injustice in health care

July 20, 2016

By Margie Coloian, MSJ

Rachael Bedard believes that doctors as a group haven’t taken responsibility for confronting racism in the nation. Given her longstanding interest in civil rights and racial justice, and in the wake of the latest police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in St. Paul, and Delrawn Small in Brooklyn, the palliative care fellow at Mt. Sinai Hospital knew she had to do something to raise the issue among her peers.

Together with a handful of other physicians, she crafted a letter to patients, pledging support for the Black Lives Matter movement and posted it on Medium. The letter urged clinicians to sign on to five commitments, among them vowing to “dismantle the structural racism embedded in the health care system.”

“We see the impact of discrimination on health,” she told the Lown Institute on Monday. “It’s present when we examine our patients because we see how the lack of resources— housing, education, food insecurity—impacts health. So too does exposure to violence, incarceration, and living in an unjust world.”

For Bedard, the response to the letter was striking. When 750 signatories appeared, practically overnight, she and her co-authors were elated. Within days of the mid-July posting, the letter gained more than 3,000 signatures from doctors, medical students and other health care professionals. And the numbers keep ticking up.

“I’m in awe that so many doctors, different specialists, deans of medical schools, department chairs, doctors who I know are wonderful clinicians—but are not politically active— have signed this letter,” she said. “I think this is a testament to how we are in a different place in the national conversation. Folks who would not have signed a letter like this a year or two ago, are doing this now.”

Signatories agree to take adequate responsibility for confronting racism in and out of work settings; to learn how to provide trauma-informed care, and teach it to students; to heal communities ravaged by discriminatory criminal justice practices; and to insist that major medical societies develop policies on racial justice.

“We must confront racism in the health care system,” Bedard said, “if we are going to use health care resources adequately.”

The letter is not Bedard’s first effort at bettering care for patients. When she was a chief resident at Cambridge Health Alliance in 2014, she and David Bor, MD, the hospital’s chief of medicine and a Lown Institute board member, conducted the first Institute’s Avoidable Care Rounds, today known as Right Care Rounds. RCR is a clinical presentation, analyzing how an individual patient could have received the best care, exposing them to minimal harm and using medical and community resources effectively.

Also, most recently, Bedard wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for compassionate release of incarcerated, ill patients.

The Medium letter has proven an example of successful grassroots organizing, for the authors, and underscores how productive working together for a cause can be. “I hope this helps folks begin the conversations on the local level…to help empower them to make change,” she said.

Add you name. Sign the Medium letter here.
Learn about White Coats for Black Lives here.