Infectious Disease Specialist Addresses Structural Racism in Health Care

What are some of the unspoken, deep-seated societal premises that have contributed to racism in the American health care system?

Virginia Banks, M.D., M.B.A., tackled such topics in her address for the Chatrchai Watanakunakorn, M.D., Lectureship in Medicine, titled “Structural Racism and Health Care: Let’s Have a Conversation.” An infectious disease specialist in Youngstown, Ohio, Dr. Banks is the 2019 Watanakunakorn Clinician Award recipient. 

Last year’s Watanakunakorn lecture was cancelled, due to COVID-19. This year, the event was presented virtually, with a large online turnout. 

Many factors

Implicit bias—the attitudes we hold toward people without our conscious knowledge – is a large factor in the disparities that exist in health care, said Dr. Banks. Yet there are many others. For example, if one looks at the reasons for low numbers of Black people getting vaccinated, one is that the health care system “has earned their mistrust,” said Dr. Banks, presenting historical information on topics like the Tuskegee syphilis study on Black men in Alabama from 1932-1972. 

Adding her personal anecdotes, Dr. Banks traced a history of inequities – “separate but equal” policies and redlining, for example. Structural racism in health care is not new: “We have been talking about this since 2003,” when there was a call to action at the federal level, said Dr. Banks. 

For further reading, she recommended several publications, including The Political Determinants of Health by Daniel Dawes and the “Allyship Guide: From Awareness to Action,” published by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, to which she has belonged and served for 30 years. Dr. Banks also mentioned an article by James H. Lee, M.D., “Combating Anti-Asian Sentiment: A Practical Guide for Clinicians,“ published in the March 24, 2021 issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

To the medicine students in the audience, Dr. Banks quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see.” 

If you missed the event, you can still watch it. 

Watch “Structural Racism and Health Care: Let’s Have a Conversation,” with Dr. Virginia Banks


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