Health disparities have been well-documented during the pandemic. Black and Hispanic people have been hospitalized or died from complications of COVID-19 at a higher rate than white people, while skepticism about the vaccine remains highest in those communities. Wake Forest Baptist Health hopes the work they’ve been doing for years helps change the course of history.
“When there’s a shared experience between patient and physician or provider, we know that patient outcomes are improved,” said Dr. Amber Brooks. “So it’s really important to diversify the workforce and equally importantly, the physician workforce should resemble the population that it serves.”
Brooks is an anesthesiologist and pain medicine physician at Wake Forest Baptist Health. There, she says she’s been cultivated, mentored, and supported. She helps lead Baptist’s effort to recruit a more diverse physician workforce.
“I would say that if your institution has the reputation of being one that cultivates a nurturing environment, one in which people feel like they’re included, one in which people feel like their voices can be heard, if your institution has that type of reputation then people will come,” she said. “In order to create an inclusive environment in which everybody feels welcome, one of the first things you have to do is you have to educate people about the benefits of being diverse and inclusive.”
To do that, Baptist had the year of inclusion two years ago. Brooks says that sparked conversation and initiatives that continue today.
“I’ve had difficult conversations with non-minority colleagues, or white colleagues. I’ve seen hearts change,” she said. “It has led to an opportunity for people to be in a space in which they are more receptive to hearing about those historical atrocities.”
Like the Tuskegee Experiment. In 1932, doctors with the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 600 Black men for an experiment with the promise of free health care. 399 of them had syphilis. There was no known treatment at the time. They were all told they were being treated for “bad blood” and given placebos. This continued even after penicillin was discovered to treat the disease. Researchers did not provide effective care, even as the men experienced severe health problems related to their untreated syphilis. Some died. Tuskegee is one of the top reasons Black people who don’t trust the health care system or the vaccine cite. That includes Brooks’ grandmother, who lives near Tuskegee.
“She’s 88 now and so initially I was a bit taken aback. But when I stopped and I think about the lens in which she’s remembering, the perspective in which she’s remembering, I can’t be surprised,” she said. “Their concerns are that it’s experimental, the government doesn’t care about Black and brown people, and I have to acknowledge those hurts. I have to acknowledge those atrocities. Those are real for some people. And then hit them with data, facts, and lead by example.”
She believes as hearts and minds open, and the doctors who serve the community look more like the community, patient outcomes will naturally improve.