Today, I call on my fellow U.S. healthcare CEOs to do two things—acknowledge our collective failures and embrace the fight for justice. As healthcare providers, we know our mission is sacred. But we also know the actual medical care we provide accounts for only 10%-20% of a person’s overall wellness. Our communities also need food and clean water, employment opportunities, affordable housing and transportation, the right to vote, and the right to feel safe walking down the sidewalk.
It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street, his death triggering a national reckoning with systemic racism and police violence—erupting in protests across our nation. The range of emotions we felt earlier this year as we watched former police officer Derek Chauvin being quietly led away in handcuffs were complex—confidence that justice was served, sadness for lives lost and forever changed, and hope that the outcome of the trial will be a catalyst for authentic change. But hope is not enough.
At the same time, while leading Michigan’s response to COVID-19, we saw how the pandemic severely impacted our communities of color, forcing a reckoning of another kind. African Americans account for 14% of Michigan’s population, yet represented 40% of our COVID-related deaths during the first surge in 2020. After feeling left behind by Detroit’s economic resurgence, many are feeling that the healthcare and public health system let them down, as well. Additionally, clinicians of color have faced racial bias for decades, a recent report finding that more than 30% of African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic clinicians and front-line teams have experienced intolerable conduct and remarks while courageously doing their jobs.
To say our hearts are broken by both would be an understatement. As CEO of a Detroit-based health system, and an African-American man, I can attest to this brokenness. It is a sobering reminder of the painful irony in which we live in America—the world’s most diverse melting pot plagued by pervasive intolerance and a failure to act on behalf of those who need us most.
I didn’t experience Detroit during the 1967 uprising, but I did grow up in the segregated South, in the small, yet infamous town of Tuskegee, Ala. Raised in the hotbed of the Civil Rights movement, I was too young to fully comprehend the events swirling around me—the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, my parents’ participation in the 1965 Selma March, civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams sitting in our living room chatting about race-stoked violence sweeping the country.
More than five decades later, we still cannot shake the inescapable gravitational force of our troubled beginnings. Systemic racism and other inherent structural barriers have sadly become embedded in our society—and I am not about to pretend that the healthcare industry is immune.
There are many who remain hopeful that we are at an inflection point and encouraged that authentic conversations are taking place, both in our healthcare institutions and our broader societies. But dialogue is not enough.
We must act on behalf of every life we serve, partnering to earnestly and courageously lift up our communities. If we fail to do this, we dare not call ourselves successful stewards of health and wellness. It is only through the actions we take that this moment truly becomes the inflection point that leads to a better America for our children and grandchildren.