Column: Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, National Black Physicians Group Addresses Disparities

Leon McDougle, M.D., MPH, is a U.S. Navy veteran, a professor of family medicine and chief diversity officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and president of the National Medical Association.

As a family physician in Columbus, when someone has chest pain with exertion that might be caused by a blockage of a heart artery, I order a cardiac stress test. The coronavirus pandemic is a stress test for African Americans and people of color across the USA today.

As the new president of the National Medical Association, I assure you the results of this COVID-19 stress test call for immediate, life-preserving interventions, as health disparities, a legacy of chattel slavery, continue across our nation with no end in sight.

In April, based on the earliest available data, Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., reported on the disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus on black citizens of Connecticut in a peer-reviewed journal. Laurencin, a distinguished professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Connecticut, noted their vulnerability because they already are disproportionately affected by poverty, limited health care access and health-related conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and respiratory illness.

“While the virus does not discriminate,” he noted, “America’s history of discrimination creates potential longer-term scenarios akin to our experience with HIV, influenza, and other infectious diseases in Black and brown people.”

Our experience with COVID-19 since then has proved his assessment was prescient.

In the past 125 years, the National Medical Association has served as a collective voice for African American physicians and their patients.

In the year ahead, our organization will work with others to address disparities in health access and outcomes and advance health equity, so all Americans have a fair, just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

The NMA will work to accelerate a broader, more equitable and just response to the nation’s COVID-19 crisis. The latest data show rates of infection and death among African Americans are disproportionately high and related to preexisting health disparities, structural impediments and inadequate strategies to address the unequal health and health care in the African American community specifically and in communities of color overall.

I will soon convene a National Medical Association COVID-19 Commission that will include experts on vaccines, therapeutics, policy, practice, access and prevention. We will learn from this bitter experience. And we will work to have our communities and our country better prepared and better equipped to respond to the next health crisis.

If the United States government can allocate tax breaks and benefits for the wealthy and corporations that will cost $2.3 trillion over 10 years as it did in 2018, then it is time for an investment of similar magnitude in institutions advancing health equity. These include more than 100 historically black colleges and universities such as Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C.; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Charles R. Drew Medical School in Los Angeles; and the W. Montague Cobb/National Medical Association Health Institute.

Under my leadership, NMA will continue working to create broader access and foster greater diversity among individuals pursuing careers in health-related professions. America faces a physician shortage of 40,000 to 120,000 in the next decade in both primary and specialty care. The proportion of med students who identified as African American rose from 5.6% in 1980 to 7.1% in 2018. Even so, that is still well short of the 13.4% of Americans who are black.

Additionally, NMA will amplify efforts to promote social justice, seek changes to reduce racism-driven deaths from police-involved violence, bring an end to the mass incarceration of African Americans and abolish the inequitably applied death penalty.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the novel coronavirus pandemic this year revealed infrastructure failures that have worsened health disparities in Black neighborhoods and resulted in the untimely deaths of Black people and people of color.

Hurricane Katrina revealed cracks in the levees. The novel coronavirus revealed broken public health and emergency response infrastructures in desperate need of repair. In both cases, those failures put lives in jeopardy and caused unnecessary deaths.

As president of the NMA and a representative of Black physicians nationwide, I am prepared to lead with one voice. Our nation can and must do better.

Leon McDougle, M.D., MPH, is a U.S. Navy veteran, a professor of family medicine and chief diversity officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and president of the National Medical Association.

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