Expanding Our Commitment to Confronting Racism

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By Cliff Megerian, MD, FACS
President, University Hospitals

UH Clinical Update | July 2020

As health care providers, we are in the business of saving lives. We save them individually, and collectively. That’s why we are in the medical profession.

So when we and the rest of the country witnessed the nearly nine minutes it took for George Floyd to die – because he was senselessly prevented from breathing by a police officer – we felt pain, grief and outrage. It moved us to further action.

Most of us will never forget the response at UH on June 11, when hundreds of caregivers gathered in unity and support on the Lakeside lawn at our main campus. As Dan Simon, MD, President of UH Cleveland Medical Center, wrote that day, UH caregivers were thinking not only about the persistent issues of racism, but also “what each of us as individuals might do to advance racial equity, and safety from violence, for people of color.” It symbolized our solidarity and our unified commitment to change.

We are committed to working to resolve the racism that leads to so many unnecessary deaths. And in this, I also include the deaths caused by disparities in health care, which this spring and summer led to three times the rate of African-Americans dying of COVID-19 as whites.

Racism is a public health crisis, as we said in our support of the Cleveland City Council resolution that declared this. At UH, we see firsthand and every day how racism disproportionately impacts the health of minority communities, which manifests in higher rates of chronic diseases, infant mortality and lower life expectancies.

UH has been, and continues to be, an active partner in addressing issues identified by the Cuyahoga County Community Health Assessment, which focuses on structural racism as a critical contributor to unfair health conditions and outcomes. UH efforts to address health care disparities include the UH Rainbow Center for Women & Children in MidTown and the UH Otis Moss Jr. Health Center in Fairfax, established in close partnership with the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church. These centers improve access to high-quality patient care for residents of our urban communities.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, UH has conducted outreach to predominantly African-American neighborhoods that have been impacted by the virus at higher rates than other communities, and we are redoubling our efforts to expand access to health care.

But what we have done needs to be our foundation, not our ceiling. As an organization, we embrace diversity and inclusion as core values. So the right thing to do is to create an environment at UH where African-Americans and all people of color feel welcome, respected and valued – and the results of this need to be apparent to everyone. We are going to work even harder at increasing diversity in the workplace at all levels and at respecting the ideas and value that each caregiver brings to UH.

The change we influence in our communities begins from within UH. With that in mind, I have created a panel for Social Justice & Equity. I know what you may be thinking – this is often a classic response in government and business: A committee is formed, which eventually makes some recommendations that may result in change, but likely not much. And then it is forgotten.

That is assuredly not what will happen here. These committee members are charged with creating ideas, approaches and insights for actionable leadership on racism in health care and in the workplace.

The members of the team include me, Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, Tom Snowberger, Henry “Champ” Burgess, Dr. Jeanne Lackamp, Dr. Francoise Adan, Valda Christian and Heidi Gartland. Margaret will lead the team in creating a strategic roadmap focused on six pillars: Education, Leadership, Culture, Accountability, Best Practices and Funding.

As Champ Burgess says, social justice is in the forefront of the hearts and minds of a large portion of our population – and we believe it will stay in the forefront. There is a groundswell for change, and it is gathering strength.

“COVID has removed a lot of distractions from our daily lives, and allowed people time to focus on what is important,” he said. “UH is in a position to be a leader in these efforts and reaffirm its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The Social Justice & Equity team is tasked with planning to address racism in meaningful ways. It also will ensure that momentum on this topic stays strong.

“I am personally committed to addressing questions around leadership equity and inclusion – such as, ‘How can we build a leadership team that reflects the community we serve?’” says Champ. “In reducing health disparities, how can we ensure that our unrepresented patients receive the same level of care and outcomes as everyone else? And in terms of community engagement, how does UH best address the pandemic of racism and the ongoing demand for social justice?”

UH will find answers to these questions. Our leaders and I are committed to quantifiable improvements in social justice and equity within our communities and UH, as well as progress in living our core values of diversity and inclusion.

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