The COVID Racial Data Tracker reports that Black communities and people of color account for 21% of COVID-19 deaths, which is 2.4 times the rate of white communities. Latinx and American Indian communities are also getting sick and dying at rates that are higher than whites. Though COVID-19 testing capacity and education have increased in these communities, this influx may not be enough to bridge the gaps in a healthcare system not built to serve its most vulnerable populations.
“Coronavirus has cast a bright light on the enormous access problems that at-risk communities and people of color face when seeking healthcare, but we can learn from this,” says Dr. Melissa James, who is one of Tryon Medical’s Internal Medicine physician owners.
Dr. James co-chairs the Healthcare Disparity Task Force Initiative of Vision2Rise, a forum for women leaders that works to eliminate the racial, judicial, health and socioeconomic disparities disproportionately impacting Black communities. Her team has been working to change long-held mindsets that prevent our healthcare infrastructure from expanding where it’s needed most.
To improve healthcare disparity, medical professionals must:
Understand gaps in data and increase access to diagnostic testing.
“COVID-19 testing has improved, but we still don’t really know the infection numbers, especially among the undocumented,” says Dr. James. Immigrants and those with income challenges often lack health insurance and even transportation to get to and from the doctor to take a test.
Language and literacy barriers also drive a wedge between patients and providers. “Handing a patient a pamphlet about preventing COVID-19 won’t help if the patient can’t read English,” adds Dr. James.
Ask the right questions.
“We need to stop asking, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and start asking questions that uncover the circumstances impacting someone’s health,” says Dr. James, who makes an effort to learn her patients’ backgrounds and cultural beliefs. “You can learn so much more about someone’s risk of contracting COVID-19 by asking them where they work and who lives in their household.”
Think about healthcare as a two-way relationship.
“The main complaint I get from my patients is, ‘My previous doctor wasn’t listening to me’.” Dr. James says medical professionals need to commit to getting to know their patients and be willing to change the way they practice. The doctors of Tryon Medical Partners meet regularly as a group to share and provide feedback on ways to strengthen the patient-doctor relationship.
Bridging healthcare disparity extends beyond medical providers. There are things we all can do to support those in need and help them get better connected to care:
Expand your definition of who is at-risk.
With skyrocketing job loss and expired unemployment benefits, the term “at-risk” includes many people who might surprise you. Helping another in desperate need may be as simple as calling a neighbor or friend who knows of someone who is struggling.
“Do you maybe know an elderly person who has difficulty seeing? Does your church or civic organization have a sister community that could connect you to people who need help?” asks Dr. James. “Even getting simple necessities and leaving them on a doorstep can save someone’s financial resources so they can better prioritize their healthcare.”
Fight isolation by getting involved… even virtually.
“From people who have been furloughed to those with underlying health conditions, many are completely isolated,” says Dr. James. “Personally, I find volunteering helps me focus on something positive and allows me to connect with others who share my passion for helping.”
Dr. James is also a devoted advocate and board member of Florence Crittenton Services, which helps young at-risk women who are either pregnant or in crisis due to abuse, aging out of the foster care system or homelessness. When the organization’s spring fundraising event was cancelled due to COVID-19, Dr. James personally called donors to solicit support for young women’s continued prenatal and mental healthcare. (Please learn more about Florence Crittenton Services and consider supporting their important mission to keep young women and their babies healthy.)
Educate yourself on what is going on in our community.
“If you have wondered why people in struggling communities can’t just ‘go get a job,’ it’s easier to understand now. Educate yourself and increase your awareness,” says Dr. James.
This could be getting a digital subscription or becoming a member of one of Charlotte’s exceptional news outlets, or you could start by reading this report compiled by an organization called Leading on Opportunity. Their report examined economic mobility in Charlotte, specifically the key determinants of early care, education, college and career readiness, as well as child and family stability.
“COVID-19 is affecting everyone,” says Dr. James. “If we can take the time to really listen to others, open our hearts, and educate ourselves, then each of us can make a difference.”