By Gary Frazier
I hope I live to see a Black History Month when the hardships and injustices Black people have historically faced are just that: history. Wouldn’t it be nice to talk about George Washington Carver and his ingenious work with the humble peanut — and know that the struggles he faced along the way were things of the past?
But during the past few Februarys, we’ve found our conversations circling back to the disparities and issues that exist in American society right now. The disadvantages that exist for African Americans and other people of color, both inside and outside of healthcare, are longstanding and have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus forces us at Worksite Labs to acknowledge that fighting for healthcare equality is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year endeavor. We can’t focus on the issue only during Black History Month or other periods of heightened cross-cultural awareness.
No matter our race, our profession or our understanding of Black history and current struggles, we can all work to promote equality and foster cross-cultural understanding, both in February and year-round. And a great place to start is by being thankful, being mindful and being deliberate.
When I think of Black history, I envision a massive pyramid in which many, many indigenous Africans make up the base, holding the next generation on their shoulders. That generation, in turn, holds up its next of kin, and so forth until we reach the top: those of us who are here now.
We’re at a point in history when African Americans like me can stand up. We can be seen. We can dream bigger and achieve higher than any previous generation. And we owe it all to those who came before us, who could never stand up or be seen themselves.
In healthcare, Black people have a greater presence and influence because of our predecessors who broke boundaries and received zero credit for paradigm-altering work to get a foot in the door for people like them. These are people like Dr. Vivien Thomas, who pioneered a treatment for Tetralogy of Fallot (a type of blue baby syndrome) — but for which his white colleagues got all the recognition.
Black trailblazers also have worked hard to promote equality on the business side of healthcare. I’ve been blessed to know several of these people personally, including my friend and former mentor Lloyd Dean, currently CEO of CommonSpirit Health, and the late Bernard Tyson, who was CEO of Kaiser Permanente. My late friend Percy Allen II, who was CEO of Bon Secours Health System, had many stories about being the first Black administrator at an Indiana hospital, where the other senior staffers (majority white) would wonder during meetings whether he’d entered the wrong room.
These (and others like them) didn’t make strides in healthcare for personal glory or recognition; they did it with future generations in mind. It wasn’t just about their jobs or the good of the industry; it was about making a new way for their families and the families of the people who would come behind them. And it was about having someone in the room to make healthcare better for people who looked like them, whose struggles were (and still are) disproportionate.
Inequality in healthcare remains a reality we must acknowledge, both within and outside hospital systems and businesses. First, let’s talk about disparities inside the industry itself.
Only 5% of all active physicians in 2018 were Black, compared to 13.4% of American citizens who identify as Black. This disparity is troubling both because of what causes it and the impact it has on patient groups.
For one, it indicates a vicious cycle in which young, Black, aspiring healthcare professionals have fewer connections to the industry through family or community groups. This reduces their opportunity to attain jobs that they deserve based solely on their skillset. Then, of course, they can’t develop that skillset further to advance in their health system or business. This curbs the number of Black healthcare professionals in higher positions, which in turn reduces the number of possible connections for future generations.
With fewer Black physicians and providers, fewer Black patients trust in medical services, since they’re less likely to receive care from someone who looks like them. That lack of trust has roots in generations’ worth of mistreatment of Black people in American history and has led to higher COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among people of color in general.
So, we see how a lack of Black healthcare workers — combined with inherent risk factors that many people of color experience — plays a hand in worsening the effects of the pandemic among African Americans. When the people who are on the front lines look like, think like and come from the same places as the people we’re serving, the likelihood of discrimination decreases — and trust increases.
I have a duty to not just stand up and be counted, but to make it possible for others to seize that opportunity too. That’s why my Worksite Labs colleagues and I take every chance to serve Black patients and promote Black healthcare professionals, to help them shake off the restrictions of the past.
How do we do that? First, through our community sites in South Los Angeles, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and (most recently) Menlo Park in Greater San Francisco.
Being present in vulnerable, largely minority communities means we meet people where they are with services they can’t otherwise easily access, especially those without regular doctors. Our services include COVID-19 tests and vaccines, blood sugar and blood pressure tests, and educational health clinics, among others. To establish trust and bring people out, we never go in alone, as we partner with houses of worship and local non-profits that are part of the community already.
Among the roughly 400 jobs Worksite Labs has created at clinics around the country, most are filled by people of color. In addition to building trust among our diverse patients, offering opportunities to these qualified professionals allows them to gain experience, travel and network. They can connect with healthcare professionals who look like them through groups such as the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE), of which several Worksite Labs leaders and I are members.
Diversity isn’t a mere luxury our company enjoys because we implemented it from the outset. Centuries-old medical systems can effect change by assigning healthcare professionals of color to diversity-focused leadership roles and filling more positions with qualified minority candidates who might have fewer opportunities than others to grow their careers. Change is possible, and it’s your responsibility to enable it however you can — whether you’re an upper administrator in healthcare or in a position of influence in your own industry.
And if that’s not you, what can you do to make a difference this Black History Month and year-round? Increase your own cross-cultural understanding by investing in Black stories, by making Black history and culture a part of your life. Even I am still learning new things about Black people and their lives through books — most recently, Sidney Poitier’s The Measure of a Man, which taught me about the spiritual journey of one of our most significant Black performers.
At a minimum, make the deliberate choice to learn. Pick an author, a historic figure, even a media personality who has stories to share about the Black experience. No matter how you learn — whether through books, podcasts, documentaries or other means — there’ll always be a new perspective out there for you to invest in.
Gary Frazier is CEO of Worksite Labs.