On a recent Sunday morning, my husband and I headed into town for one of our favorite weekend activities: Sunday service at St. Joan of Arc church. I was particularly enthusiastic to hear the featured guest speaker this occasion, Dr. Stephen Nelson, a local pediatric hematologist-oncologist. His talk, 'Racial Disparities in Health Care,' was right up my alley!
Dr. Nelson was given all of about 15 minutes to express his message. He did not disappoint. A few compelling statistics coupled with his insights on biases left me with one question: why?
Why do we make judgements? How do judgements impact our subjective assessments – especially in a clinical environment? What is at the root of our categorical assessments based on race? These questions swirled in my mind in the context of being a nurse, a mother, and a citizen.
Dr. Nelson offered a comparison scenario: caring for a child of a 17-year-old single Black mother from North Minneapolis versus caring for a child of a Caucasian mother from Edina. He admits to catching himself making those quick judgements towards the 17-year-old Black mother. "Does she have insurance? Will transportation be a barrier to make appointments? Will she comply with treatment plans?" Dr. Nelson’s transparency helped me shift my question from why to what. What do I do with the recognition of biases I’ve discovered?
Soul stirring talks like Dr. Nelson’s – receiving a message that marries my values with my faith while forcing me to evaluate how my convictions are exercised in my career…this is what privilege feels like. Being in a moment where I can look at the gaps that exist in our society, and thinking about how those gaps impact societal values, faith, and conviction...I felt truly privileged to entertain all these thoughts. I told my husband that we had to stay to meet this speaker. I had to thank Dr. Nelson for pushing the envelope on my thoughts.
The line to meet and greet was long and the opportunity to express my gratitude felt swift. Upon meeting and sharing with Dr. Nelson that I am a nurse - and that his talk would impact my practice, he asked where I worked. What a treat to learn next that he was scheduled to come and speak at the hospital where I’m employed!
Fast forward three weeks. I went in on my day off to hear Dr. Nelson expand his experience with confronting racial disparities in health care in a different dynamic environment: my workplace. The context of hearing what he had to share in my place of faith context held up now in my place of employment was rich. There was more time at this presentation – and I was astounded by the unabridged variety of examples Dr. Nelson shared to illustrate the struggle of racial disparity in this nation and in my home state of Minnesota. I’ll try to recap some of the examples from my notes (without specific citation) that were hardest for me to digest.
- I would not have guessed that Minnesota has one of the highest rates of racial disparity in the US.
- Minnesota is a national leading state for education. Yet for our African American population, the 4th grade reading level is the same as in the state of Mississippi (who has less dynamic educational outcomes to herald). Fourth grade level is a significant turning point for students transitioning from word recognition in reading to reading comprehension.
- African Americans have a 3:1 unemployment rate ratio.
- There are 10 times as many African Americans incarcerated versus Caucasians.
- On any given day in Minnesota, a Black person is 20 times more likely to be stopped for a traffic offense than a white person.
- African Americans have a higher infant mortality rate.
- African Americans wait longer in the ER than a Caucasian patient.
- It takes 3+ hours longer for the African American to go to the the ER for an injury v.s. a comparable injury that a Caucasian patient would go to the ER for, likely due to socio economic barriers.
- It takes 20 minutes longer for the hospitalized African American patient to receive pain meds when calling out for them.
- In 2004, there was eight times the financial support for Cystic Fibrosis research (majority Caucasian persons-affected disease) versus Sickle Cell Disease (majority Black persons-affected disease). Sickle Cell Disease also has a higher population of patients than Cystic Fibrosis does. Today, there is 11 times the financial support for CF.
- There has been a decrease in Black Registered Nurses and Black MDs from the University of Minnesota. Last year, The UofM graduated one Black doctor.
I felt a rush of emotions as I listened to these statistics, took notes, and considered what I was hearing in relationship to the privileges I’ve appreciated as a White female. I felt disheartened and almost guilty. Since hearing this impactful message from Dr. Nelson that day, I’ve been moved to channel the impact of the chord that was struck in my personal and professional life as a nurse. I strive to be more intentional. I follow Dr. Nelson’s plea to anyone pondering privilege to ‘lean into’ observations of disparity. My hope is that with my newly heightened awareness, I become more active in my voice against racial disparity and less tolerant of observations to this end.
This topic also has immeasurable impact on my personal life. I am the wife to a kind-hearted African man. I am the mother to three beautiful biracial children, and the grandmother to one adorable biracial grandson. I work with intelligent, talented, African Women, and I have many African friends I hold dear. I’m deeply saddened to consider how the aforementioned statistics have or might impact their lives. As I read this post to my husband to seek his thoughts, he said, "It's very simple. Treat others the same way you would want to be treated."
Can you reflect on a time when you have witnessed racial disparity in health care? Think about how that realization felt. Could you have leaned in to make a difference in yourself or in the situation? It's never too late. Please, lean in. Please, ask why.
Please, ask, “What do I do with the recognition of biases I’ve discovered?”
Editor’s note: Jenny Sackey has been a Registered nurse for nine years. Jenny went back to school to complete her nursing degree while she was raising a family, as it was always her desire and goal to be a nurse. Prior to going back to school, she worked many years as a nursing assistant for Presbyterian Homes and Services. Her first job as a Registered Nurse was at North Memorial Medical Center on the Mother Baby unit, where she worked for three and a half years. It was always her dream to work with new moms and babies. In 2010, Maple Grove Hospital opened. Jenny had a strong desire to be a part of that new hospital, and soon thereafter accepted a position in the Family Birth Center. This past year she accepted a position as a PCF, (Patient Care Facilitator), a leadership role for the unit. Jenny loves being an integral part of this fast paced unit, and will tell you she has the best colleagues to be found. She is honored to be a part of her patients and families birth experience. Jenny describes this as being privileged to be a part of one of the most special life events a family will ever encounter. Jenny never loses sight of the privilege of impacting this precious milestone in patient and families’ lives.