Systemic racism has health consequences
By Kevin Ewanchyna, MD
Racism is not just a destructive social crisis. At Samaritan Health Services and the Intercommunity Health Network Coordinated Care Organization, we strongly believe it’s a public health crisis, as well.
When it comes to the “Social Determinants of Health” issues of safe housing, educational opportunity and steady employment, there isn’t a level playing field. For generations – going back hundreds of years in this country — systemic racism has been a driving force of social determinants and a major barrier to health equity.
Racism structures opportunity and assigns value based on how a person looks. Whether that bias is intentional or unintentional, racism hurts the health of individuals and our nation by denying some people the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.
Health care organizations nationwide are increasingly focused on their role and responsibility in addressing racism, health equity and the Social Determinants of Health.
As a physician and a senior leader at Samaritan Health Services and our region’s Coordinated Care Organization (IHN-CCO, which is operated by Samaritan), I see how racism affects the health of patients, CCO members and the larger community, specifically in the areas of mental health, chronic disease, maternal and infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Treating immediate medical concerns is merely placing a clinical band-aid on a set of circumstances far deeper and long-lasting. Until we address systemic racism, the health and quality of life of our neighbors and friends will inevitably continue to decline, and I have seen instances of this firsthand in my work in urgent care. In this current COVID-19 pandemic, we hear reports of how people of color are disproportionately affected by this disease.
In recognition of the connection between racism and health, Samaritan Health Services and IHN-CCO are expanding their investment in equity and inclusion as part of a four-year plan that was launched last January. (You can find the plan at samhealth.org/Equity.) The plan was developed in 2019 by Samaritan’s Equity and Inclusion Council, of which I am a member. It outlines dozens of activities designed to enhance health equity within Samaritan facilities and among Samaritan employees. The initial focus of our work is to expand our employee training around equity and inclusion and to strengthen our language access services for patients and members who do not speak English as their primary language.
The recent acts of violent racism that have played out so publicly in recent weeks has only affirmed the urgent need for all of us to listen, learn and seek to understand. Additionally, we are committed to fostering an environment of equity and inclusion throughout our organization that respects, affirms and values the rich backgrounds and life experiences of our workforce and the communities we serve.
Recognizing that diversity, equity and inclusion is a process that requires us to consistently reflect on our actions and measure our progress, we will continue to seek your feedback on how we’re doing and will be transparent in sharing what we learn. Our collective health – as individuals and as a caring community — depends on it.
Kevin Ewanchyna, MD, a Corvallis family physician, is Vice President/Chief Medical Officer for Samaritan Health Plans and IHN-CCO. He also serves as the current President of the Oregon Medical Association.