Even though it’s common knowledge that a person’s race influences their health — from the rates of certain types to cancer to social determinants — many providers prefer to avoid talking about it.
That’s why Juliette G. Blount, RN, MSN, NP, brought her course, “What is Race and Why Does It Matter?”, to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ recent conference and received rave reviews. It was the first time the two-part class hit a national stage, and even though only the first session was available to this year’s attendees, there were many lessons that clinicians of all stripes should incorporate into their everyday practice.
Learn about health disparities.
Laying the groundwork for the course, Blount defined the term “health disparities,” pulling from HealthyPeople.gov.
“A particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”
Without this understanding of why race can negatively affect one’s health, it’s only natural that as a clinician, you might otherwise avoid asking tough questions about this subject.
Speaking of which, Blount explained that she always asks her patients a few questions relating to their background to help her understand how they see themselves, as well as potential risk factors. She makes a habit of finding out about patients’…
- Ethnicity, which Blount defines as “heritage”
- Culture, or the factors that influence a patient’s lived experience, such as their religion or where they grew up
- Preferred terms to refer to their ethnicity, culture, etc.
Talk about race.
In many circles race is still a taboo subject, but we won’t ever reach health equity without acknowledging that people are treated differently and have different life experiences because of their race.
You have to be willing to be uncomfortable, Blount explained. A good place to start? Talk to your friends and family about how you and they identify.
Take the Implicit Association Test.
Part of getting comfortable talking about race, Blount said, is knowing how you see other people’s races so you can address your own biases. Among healthcare providers, biases towards different racial groups can cause even more harm than in other settings. The test is available online through Harvard University’s Implicit Project.
Call out when healthcare professionals disregard the social determinants of health.
It’s natural to forget about the social determinants of health when no one has educated you about them. That’s why it’s crucial to raise your voice when you see a fellow provider or administrator making assumptions about a person’s background.
For example, Blount shared a story about the New York City Department of Health announcing it would offer free PrEP to women of color without acknowledging the social factors that increase WoC’s risk of contracting HIV. Blount wrote to the department and they reissued their statement, she recalled.
Ask for help.
If you’re interested in bringing more racial awareness into your practice or workplace, you shouldn’t do it alone, Blount said. In fact, she explained that for such programs to be effective, they should come from the top down. If you feel comfortable, ask your colleagues about their interest in such an initiative and consider addressing your superiors as a group.
Acknowledging racial differences can be uncomfortable, but without it, people of color won’t receive the health equity they deserve. As Blount put it, “Talking about it is not going to kill you. But not talking about race is going to kill patients.”