By Stephan Davis, DNP, FACHE
“Healthcare leadership is more than a profession, it’s a calling.” It’s a simple but profound statement that kicked off the 2021 ACHE Congress on Healthcare Leadership. As a healthcare leader and educator of color, I feel called in this moment to respond to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Minority Health’s request that individuals and communities share the reasons why they are #VaccineReady, the theme for this year’s National Minority Health Month.
I feel fortunate to share I am among the millions of Americans who are fully vaccinated. Part of the reason I felt compelled to get vaccinated quickly is because of my family story. My father was born in the Jim Crow South. A Kentucky native, my father recalls not being able to drink from the same water fountain as his white counterparts when he was young. As a child, I vividly remember my father teaching me what so many Black fathers pass on to their sons—the importance of knowing how to navigate systems and institutions that were not created with us in mind. From emphasizing the importance of speaking “proper English” so I would be called back for a job interview to always obeying the instructions of police officers regardless of whether I was right or wrong, my father’s guidance was rooted in a deep fear and distrust of systems that had been unfair and unjust. From a healthcare perspective, I remember both my father and mother feeling fortunate to have identified a Black physician who was in our insurance network to serve as the pediatrician for my sister and me, believing she would provide better care to us than we would normally receive, a sentiment reflective of the problematic history of mistreatment of Black patients in the healthcare system.
My father is also a perfect case study on the health disparities that affect racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Raised on my grandmother’s delicious soul food cooking, my father developed very unhealthy dietary habits, leading to diabetes and hypertension. He typically worked six days a week at the U.S. Post Office and his time off was often spent on a recliner watching television. By the time I was a freshman in college, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and subsequently needed a seven-way coronary artery bypass graft procedure.
Clearly, with his underlying health conditions, my father is an example of someone who should be among the first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. It is also easy to understand why people like my father, based on their lived experiences, could either not trust the vaccine itself or have a lack of faith in its equitable deployment. This is about a fundamental distrust of systems that have historically excluded, marginalized, and exploited racial and ethnic minorities. This is why it is so important that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), particularly those of us who work in healthcare, share our reasons for and success in obtaining the vaccine. We must reassure members of our communities that the vaccine is safe, efficacious and increasingly available, as the health and well-being of members of at-risk populations may depend on their willingness to be inoculated against COVID-19.
As health system leaders, we also have a responsibility to ensure the vaccine is equitably distributed. This necessitates hearing from diverse patients and workforce members as we continue to deploy the vaccine and potentially boosters that may be needed in the future. When Charles D. Stokes, FACHE, received the ACHE Gold Medal Award at this year’s Congress, he emphasized in his acceptance speech that it is critical we not only include diverse voices at decision-making tables, but their voices must be heard and equitably integrated into the decisions that are actually made. This is so important not only for individual facilities and health systems, but for the entire healthcare delivery infrastructure. More than ever, diverse voices and decision-makers are needed in every area of care delivery, leadership and governance.
We are clearly in the midst of a public health crisis, and we cannot delay action as we work on long-term initiatives to increase the representation of historically underrepresented and excluded groups in the healthcare workforce. What we can do immediately as leaders, however, is make sure we are taking time to listen to the diverse voices that already exist in our workforce and in the communities we serve. What we can do immediately is appoint diverse patients and clinicians to advisory councils making important decisions that have an impact on minority health. What we can do immediately is learn about the issues affecting diverse populations and work collaboratively with community-based organizations to solve them. And that is the work we as healthcare leaders find ourselves “called” in this moment to do.
Stephan Davis, DNP, FACHE, is MHA director/assistant professor, University of North Texas Health Science Center.