Just miles from where one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in Atlanta is scheduled to close at the end of the month , dozens of medical professionals, CEOs, COOs, hospital and healthcare system presidents and the media gathered for the 2022 Black Directors Health Equity Agenda (BDHEA) summit. 

The BDHEA was created in order to bring healthcare leaders together to insure that they remain aware of the healthcare inequities in society, particularly among people of color, while working in the ivory towers of America’s healthcare industry. The annual summit, which was virtual last year due to restrictions on mass gatherings due to Covid, took place at The Whitely in Buckhead. “We’re here because our communities deserve better,” said Atrium Health President & CEO Eugene A. Woods. “It’s really up to us and our colleagues in this room to own up to that.”

Atrium Heath President & CEO Eugene A. Woods was one of the featured speakers at BDHEA 2022. “We’re here because our communities deserve better,” he said. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

The closure of Atlanta Medical Center, a 100-year-old hospital in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, will leave many under-insured and uninsured Atlantans in a tough position. How to better educate and eliminate inequalities like what is taking place at Atlanta Medical Center and many others were the topic of discussion at BDHEA 2022. 

C-suite executives from around the country made up the majority of the audience this week as ways to combat health inequalities creep into the conversation surrounding the upcoming midterm election, particularly in Georgia. “My strong belief is that governance can be a compelling force for good,” said Woods. “We are here because we all have aspirations to leave our communities better than when we found them.”

John W. Daniels, Jr., Founding Member, Executive Sponsor, Board Chairman of the BDHEA took the stage inside one of the hotels ballrooms and rhetorically asked the crowd, “How can we collaborate and deliberately take action in the health equity space?” and “What are we going to do to advance the efforts going forward?” 

Dr. Derek J. Robinson, VP & Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Illinois and the BDHEA program chair said recognizing that by improving the health of the Black community, “would also help improve the health of many other communities as well,” during a recent interview with The Atlanta Voice. “What we’re empowering our board members to do is to ask the questions.”

The questions, “How is the care being provided for men and women?, How is it being provided for individuals who maybe don’t speak English as their first language?,” said Robinson are important to providing care. “If you don’t know the questions to ask, then you likely will not give visibility into the challenges that are being encountered by patients.”

Disparities in care

The men, women and immigrants that Robinson was referring to more often than not live in communities that do not always offer the opportunity to receive the best care. In the case of Atlanta Medical Center, the care is top notch but the hospital will be closed before the holiday season, a series of months that fill hospitals around the country because of various reasons, including inter-family violence. 

Blacks make up only 5.3% of medical professionals, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. That means the odds of a Black family or individual having a Black primary physician are low. “We know that because we have under representation in the healthcare workforce of African Americans and in Hispanic and American Indians, that makes the healthcare provider workforce a little bit less relatable to those patient populations,” Robinson said. 

Atlanta Medical Center and Grady Hospital, the two Level 1 trauma centers in Atlanta, are located within inner-city neighborhoods and service people of the patient populations Robinson is speaking of.

“We know there’s plenty of research and data that not only suggests, but really informs us that there are differences in how care is delivered to patients,” said Robinson. “If you take maternal and infant health for example, we know that Black women, for example, have illness and death rates that is multiple times that of white women.” 

Some of the underline factors that lead to disparities in care are a lack of education in medical care, transportation, income disparity and food insecurity, which can lead to diabetes among other chronic health conditions common among Blacks. Awareness can lead to better diagnosis of diseases. Having people like the ones in the room at The Whitley, leaders of color in the healthcare profession (Editor’s note: Not every doctor or medical professional that attended day one of BDHEA was a person of color.) aware of how patients are being cared for at the ground level of the hierarchy, the patient level, can begin to alter the health care disparity in cities like Atlanta.

“If it’s a teaching hospital they can ask the question about how we are doing with our recruitment of underrepresented minority medical students and residents, and how are our different specialities doing that?,” said Robinson. Blacks make up just over 11% of first-year medical school students in 2021, according to American Medical Association data. That number is up from 9.5% in 2020. The number of Black male first-year students nationwide increased by more than 20% during the same time period.

There’s no better time than now to start chipping away at the number of Black medical students in order to ultimately have more Black doctors. 

On the second day of the BDHEA summit began the day at Morehouse School of Medicine where they met with Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the school’s President & CEO and City of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. 

There were students on hand. Future doctors and healthcare providers that may have to answer these same questions of healthcare inequity one day. Here’s to hoping that they might not have to do that. 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...