COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hope Lane-Gavin knew something was wrong. She had a medical issue she felt was an emergency, but it was happening on the weekend, in the midst of a pandemic.
So she called her doctor’s after-hours emergency line.
“It was, you know, we are only taking emergency patients,” she said. “We’re in the thick of COVID. And I’m like, I understand that, but trust me when I tell you that this is emergent.”
She says she felt totally dismissed and got the runaround for weeks. But she kept pushing.
“When I did finally convince them that I needed to come in, when I did get there, they were like, oh, this is an emergency, and so I was then scheduled for an emergency surgery the next day,” Lane-Gavin said. “I was frustrated, and my husband was even more frustrated because, he knew it was a problem, I knew it was a problem, and we were just getting the runaround.”
That type of experience is not unique in Ohio, as evidenced in a survey released earlier this year.
Nearly 900 people were questioned about their experiences in Ohio’s hospitals and other healthcare settings.
“Black men and women experienced, from our survey, far more discrimination in the healthcare system than White men and women, particularly White men, who reported relatively little experience with discrimination in the healthcare system,” said Steve Wagner, executive director of the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio.
That group, along with the Northeast Black Health Coalition, Multiethnic Advocates for Cultural Competence and the Ohio Unity Coalition, teamed up to conduct the survey.
Along with the reports of discrimination, the findings also revealed the troubling outcomes – that many patients either failed to make future appointments or accepted the unequal treatment as a fact of life.
“Hospitals and healthcare systems need to actively engage with the community to understand the challenges and the discriminations that are faced in those systems, and that’s the dialogue that has to happen,” Wagner said.
Wagner points to some policies that are changing, including using race as a determining factor in c-section decisions. But other policies still need work. He points to the practice of using race in looking at kidney function and treatment decisions.
“Those are policies and practices,” Wagner said. “Those are not built into how just an individual sees a person as White or Black. They’re baked into the practice of medicine.”
It’s a fact Yvonka Hall also has experienced firsthand. She’s also the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, which was a partner in the survey.
She says, since the release of the survey results, she has heard from more people wanting to share their stories.
“We do know that these stories are real people saying, this is unacceptable, what happened to me should never happen to anyone within a medical setting,” she said. “And so, for me, as an African American woman, who’s also been discriminated against in a hospital setting, I say that the time is now for us to change what is not right and to be on the track to making sure that we address the inequities that are going on within our communities.”
Hall not only shared that she herself had experienced discrimination, but she also said her own grandmother suffered. Her grandmother complained about pain following a surgery for more than a year before it was discovered that a surgical instrument had been left inside her. Even after that discovery, she said her grandmother never complained to anyone.
Hall points out many others who experience discrimination do the same. They don’t know how to report issues or to whom.
“We have to take into account the pain and suffering that is going on in our communities and how to lessen it, and part of that is how people are treated in hospital settings,” she said. “For 800, almost 900, respondents to say, yeah, I’ve been discriminated against in a healthcare setting, that is a very powerful piece, and we can use that piece, we can use the survey, we can use the results of the survey to actually elicit some change.”
One Central Ohio institution already is working toward change. Spurred on by the 2020 racial justice protests, Nationwide Children’s Hospital researched and then released the 19-page Stand Against Racism, Stand for Health Equity Report.
In it, there are seven pillars designed to promote anti-racism within the hospital: Nationwide Children’s Education & Training; Clinical, Equity & Quality Projects and Interventions; Research & Outcome Metrics; Talent & Employee Experience; Faculty & Training Programs; Community Engagement & Partnerships; and Social Justice.
“Children’s has really been committed to the concept of health equity for decades,” said Lorina Wise, chief human resources officer for NCH. “There are multiple factors, I think, that impact what health equity looks like, what diversity looks like, and how we respond to it as a healthcare system.”
She said it was important to get input from across the board when it came to creating the plan to improve racial equity and to implement it. Building relationships of trust is key.
Also important, she says, is realizing the path to solving the problem will be a long one.
“This is a journey, and I think that’s important for all of us to understand,” she said. “A lot of work did go into developing this plan, and it’s not static. It’s something that we’re constantly going to have to look at, tweak, evolve, as we work through it.”
And while NCH works through it, there will be check-ins and accountability. Those involved with the work under each pillar will send reports to the Diversity Steering Committee, which is made up of senior leaders and has been in place since 2002.
“This is not easy work, but we’re in it for the long haul because a lot of these issues weren’t created overnight, and so, the solutions are not going to occur overnight,” Wise said. “But we’re really working hard to do it, and we look forward to continued progress in this area.”
It’s progress Hope Lane-Gavin hopes to see throughout every healthcare system. She points out that she is a professional advocate and, therefore, knew how to fight for herself when she faced her medical challenges. She said she realizes that others who look like her are at a complete disadvantage.
“When we talk about provider education, provider training, implicit bias training, all of those hot button words and topics that are out right now, we need to make sure we’re talking about the receptionist, the pharmacist, the pharmacy tech, because all of those people play an integral role in the healthcare system and can make or break somebody’s treatment plan,” Lane-Gavin said. “The moment is now to make some serious changes in these spaces, and so I’m just hoping that the momentum continues.”