Racism is hurting our patients. What will we do about it?

Brooke Cunningham, MD, PhD studies a disease you wouldn’t typically see your doctor for. Racism.

Dr. Cunningham is a general internist, sociologist, and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health studying racial inequities in health and health care systems, and providers’ willingness to address racism as the fundamental cause. She is designing a framework for health care providers—and specifically White providers—to talk with their Black patients about their experiences of racism.

“We want to provide the best possible care for people of color,” says Cunningham, who sees patients at the Community-University Health Care Center in Minneapolis, “and it’s hard for me to think about doing that without exploring patients’ exposure to racism.”

Those in academia know better than most that answers are found to questions backed by funding. Historically, it hasn’t been easy to fund this work; however, Dr. Cunningham and others in the field are laying the groundwork to make a case for future studies.

COVID-19 is the latest disease to expose inequities in America’s health care system. A disproportionate number of people of color are getting COVID-19, and are more often getting severely ill. 

It’s not a coincidence, says Dr. Cunningham.“COVID is turning a mirror at the health disparities in our community every day,” she says.

Here in Minneapolis, Black people make up 19% of the population but account for 36% of confirmed COVID-19 cases, while white people make up 64% of the population but account for 32% of COVID-19 cases.

Many Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color are essential workers who cannot work from home. Those in health care, child care, and public transit, for instance, face a greater risk of exposure through their jobs and may also have fewer resources to draw upon if they should get sick, she says.

“Think about it like a pipeline and work backward,” Cunningham says. “The quality of your health insurance is tied to your job. Getting a good job is tied to your education, and we know there are educational disparities by race, in part because of the way we finance public schools. When you look at the pipeline, you can see how health disparities are created.”

Dr. Cunningham hopes her work will have a healing effect for patients as well as a positive effect on providers as well.

Read what Dr. Cunningham has published.