Cone Health works to fix racial disparities in health care

Buckley Report
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It was there all the time. It’s just that it seems few people wanted to see it.

For decades, even though African-Americans were treated in hospitals where white Americans were treated, they weren’t treated the same. Christina Yongue saw it with her own mother, who died just before Yongue’s first child was born.

“It was devastating,” remembers Yongue, about trying to help her mother navigate her illness. “I was visiting her with appointments and saw where there were differences in quality of care that she should have received and it troubled me but I didn't know that much about the breast cancer treatment journey at that time just as her daughter.”

When people in the Cone Health system began to point out that there were significant disparities in health outcomes for blacks vs. whites, it seems some people saw reasons for it that didn’t add up.

“It's less treatment and, people -- when they hear that -- they immediately say that's because of economics, access and insurance,” said Dr. Sam Cykert, who is now with UNC Hospitals but was part of the Cone system and was a big part of the changes Cone created. “But all these studies have controlled for those things so there is something in the environment that these patents are getting treated less. Nobody was intentionally trying to treat black patients less, it was just something that happened with the way the system unfolded.”

By the time Cone was seeing the problem, Yongue had finished graduate school and was working in the health field. Yongue was the perfect person to direct the ACCURE study that Cone did to see why there were disparities in outcomes between people of different racial backgrounds and, more importantly, what Cone could do about it.

“When we saw this miscommunication breakdown, the lack of trust and this kind of implicit bias against care, we thought, 'What can we do to build a system where those things are factored out?'” Cykert said.

“There is implicit bias in caregivers for sure but there are also barriers to care related to transpiration, to personal wealth, to insurance coverage and other variables that we are now more aware of and we are taking more time to understand,” said Dr. Matt Manning, who is with Cone. “Racial disparities can be resolved with intentional work and intentional effort.”

Which is what Cone is now doing with the protocols they installed after their study was done in association with the University of Pittsburgh’s hospital.

So far, the people who are benefitting from the new protocols like what they’re getting.

“The support that I got through a lot of different avenues was, I was just like, 'Wow, this is great. I'm going to be singing their praises for a while,’” said Stacie Scales, a breast cancer survivor who was treated at Cone.

“We're just beginning to make some of these changes,” promises Yongue, with a smile.

See more on how this happened – and how effective it is – in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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