‘Radical Empathy’ Key to Addressing Structural Racism in Health Care

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The UTHSC College of Medicine dialogue include leaders from the college, as well as faith and community leaders. Top row, left: Altha Stewart, MD, will moderate. Panelists include: Top row, second from left, Police Director Michael Rallings, Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Dr. Claudette Shephard. Bottom row, from left: College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD; David Schwartz, MD; Rev. Charlie Caswell.

“We are all going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Altha Stewart, MD, as she moderated a community conversation Wednesday hosted by the UTHSC College of Medicine titled, “Why Aren’t We All Mad? A Dialogue on Structural Racism in the Health Care System.”

More than 400 joined Zoom for the dialogue, the first in a series to better understand the role of the college to make necessary changes to improve a system of structural racism that has created inequities in health care.

The roundtable discussion was led by community and faith leaders including Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the College of Medicine; David Schwartz, MD, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and director of the Center for Health Equity in the Department of Radiation Oncology in the College of Medicine; Claudette Shephard, MD, an associate professor and incoming interim chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the College of Medicine; Marie Chisholm-Burns, PharmD, MPH, MBA, FCCP, FASHP, FAST, dean of the UTHSC College of Pharmacy; Rev. Charlie Caswell, executive director, Legacy of Legends, CDC; Rabbi Micah Greenstein from Temple Israel; and Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings. The UTHSC College of Medicine and the Office of Equity and Diversity supported the discussion.

“Anger leads to emotion that moves you to action,” said Rev. Caswell. “We need to begin to address and have these deep conversations as we are doing today, and then move a plan into action so that we aren’t paying for them 20 and 30 years from now.”

Part of the discussion addressed the social inequities that affect different races as being a key contributor to the success and outcomes in health care.

“Going into medicine, we want to take care of everybody, but if we start valuing one person over the other, for whatever reason, then we violate the Hippocratic Oath. We violate what we went into medicine for,” Dr. Shephard said.

Social justice as part of a fundamental component of health care is now seen as the norm and not the exception. Police director Rallings said that the local law enforcement is a partner in this work.

“Caring needs to be a global responsibility of the entire health care community,” Dr. Strome said. “We need all of our colleagues to do their fair share and that this should be a blessing, not a hardship. It’s part of who we are as medical professionals. As a community of physicians, we all have to look in the mirror and say we need to care for every single patient. We have to pledge to do better and have a structural conversation to ensure everyone has access to care. Everyone needs to be welcomed into our systems.”

Dr. Schwartz said there are simple things we can do each and every day as we do with life with one another. “Walking down the hallway of a hospital and looking into the eyes of Black faces and saying ‘Hello, How can I help you,’ That is a very big step for a lot of people and it starts to change your perspective and it starts to make you look as a citizen of the world that includes all,” he said.

The simplistic act of listening is an act of attentiveness and the beginning toward healing according to Rabbi Greenstein.

“We need radical empathy,” he said, asking the audience if they knew the stories of those around them or if it was just superficial impressions or assumptions.

The college urged the audience to learn about the experiences of others and to meet people where they are, physically and mentally, from every perspective.

Dr. Chisholm-Burns encouraged the audience to make their daily decisions through the lens of others, and to use that filter when providing care. “We are more similar than we are different. Each of us has privilege that we can use to bring forth liberation.”

Dr. Stewart, senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine, associate professor of psychiatry, and director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at UTHSC, closed the discussion by saying, “We are setting on this journey of looking for ways to improve the care we provide and the relationship we have with our community. I want everybody to commit to staying engaged in the conversation. Don’t let anger, the fear, the frustration, or the worry stop you.”

A recording of the roundtable discussion along with a list of valuable resources is available at the event website.