Addressing Racial Inequities: An Ongoing Conversation at UMass Memorial Health Care

At UMass Memorial Health Care, we continue the conversation about racial disparities in health care and addressing racism in general. Here is an update on the progress we’ve made in this area to address health disparities; steps we’re taking to have a more inclusive organization; and an overview of the ideas from our caregivers to help UMass Memorial address racism and racial inequities in the communities we serve and right here in our own health system.

Before the COVID crisis, we had started the recruitment process for a new Chief Diversity Officer to lead our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. After putting the position on hold during the crisis, we have now brought together a diverse hiring committee and engaged with a recruitment firm that specializes in this area to help us find the right leader for UMass Memorial Health Care.

Health Equity Strategy Group
During the COVID-19 crisis, we put together a Health Equity Strategy Group to address what we were seeing in our testing data – that the Latino and African American population in our region were disproportionately more affected by this disease. Here is an update on the work of this group.

  • Short-Term Goal: The short-term goal of our Health Equity Strategy Group is to continue the COVID-19 risk mitigation strategies for vulnerable populations and specifically those communities that saw the highest rates of infection and illness during the first wave of COVID-19 in our area.
  • Mitigation Strategies: One of the most important mitigation strategies has been the deployment of the UMass Memorial Ronald McDonald Care Mobile team as an outreach project to provide education and resources to neighborhoods that were hard-hit by COVID. Since April, the team distributed 2,437 education kits (in six languages), free masks and hand sanitizers in 20 neighborhoods.
  • Community Partnerships: Now, we have established a partnership with the Latino Education Institute, which has a team of young students providing door-to-door outreach in the same neighborhoods and at the same times as the UMass Memorial Care Mobile team. The Health Equity Strategy Group also continues to work with the Worcester Department of Health and Human Services on a community COVID testing strategy, supported by funding from the “Worcester Together” Fund of the United Way and Greater Worcester Community Foundation. With the recently announced additional state funding for Stop the Spread testing in our region and other available future funding, we are scheduling additional free COVID-19 testing around Worcester – in addition to the free testing being done at Marlborough Hospital as part of the program – with a focus on those communities that our health disparities data workgroup identifies as most at risk.
  • Long-Term Goal: As we get further past the COVID-19 crisis, the Health Equity Strategy Group will evolve to address all health disparities and help to develop a framework to bridge our short-term goals with a longer-term vision of creating a sustainable health equity strategy for the system.

Diversity and Inclusion Organizational Assessment
We’ve engaged with a local diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm called Promoting Good to help us conduct an organizational assessment to find our gaps in this area and make recommendations for further resources to address those gaps. Valerie Zolezzi-Wyndham, who is the founder of Promoting Good, also will help facilitate a series of listening sessions with our employees, which will help inform the organizational assessment.

Listening Sessions
I look through the process improvement lens when I’m faced with a problem. As a part of that process, I want to listen and learn to better understand the scope of the issues we face around diversity and inequity in order to find root causes and potential solutions. I have scheduled a series of listening sessions with caregivers in August and September to have a focused and productive dialogue on this topic.

Seventy-Five Ideas and Counting
Earlier in the summer, I sent out several internal messages to our caregivers, asking for ideas about how to address racial disparities in health care and beyond. I heard from many caregivers who took the time to send notes to me. Some suggested reading materials and videos on the topic (I’m still reviewing, with the intention of getting through all of them!), some pointed out our problems that need to be addressed, and some had interesting and creative solutions. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the ideas, but a few highlights to show the range of suggestions:

For Our Community

  • Address health disparities through promotion of preventative medicine to underrepresented communities.
  • Conduct outreach to underserved areas to educate on primary care access, health literacy, available financial assistance, etc.
  • Host seminars/discussions around race and health care.

For Our Patients

  • Expand ambulatory clinic hours to increase access to underserved communities.
  • Distribute health monitoring devices to underserved patients.
  • Improve the After-Visit Summary for patients who may not speak English or who have varying education levels.

For Our Caregivers

  • Implement cultural sensitivity training and support groups so that all caregivers have a better understanding of diversity and inclusion and feel supported.
  • Create a policy that addresses behavior of patients toward staff as it relates to inappropriate comments, racial slurs, and the like.
  • Several suggestions to observe Juneteenth as an official holiday at UMass Memorial and promote the holiday next year through internal marketing.
  • Increase curricular development on the history of racism in medicine and denouncing race-based medicine.
  • Create a standing committee that addresses concerns of discrimination, bias and racism.

I’ve asked our Health Equity Strategy Group to review, assess and prioritize all of the ideas to see which suggestions we can implement in the coming year.

Looking Ahead
As you can see, there is a lot of activity happening at UMass Memorial Health Care to address the racial inequities that we see in our region, in the communities we serve and in our own backyard. This list doesn’t include the great work I’ve been hearing about that is happening at the entity- and department-level.

I know we won’t solve these problems overnight. This is a long journey ahead of us, but we need to start with big and small steps to make long-term leaps and bounds. All this work demonstrates the deep commitment our caregivers have to do what we do best – tackle problems head on with innovative ideas and treat each other and those we serve with dignity and respect.

Follow me on Twitter and let’s keep the conversation going: @EricDicksonCEO

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