Racial health disparities have been magnified dramatically by the COVID-19 crisis. In the Boston area, where Quality Interactions is based, we see that the hardest-hit communities are ones of color, where social distancing is a luxury not available to most residents. The epidemic is disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable populations, while also widening the gaps in preexisting health disparities. One of the most shocking amplifications of this is in maternal healthcare.
Top media outlets, including NPR and CNN, have turned to Quality Interactions Co-Founder, Dr. Joseph Betancourt, to better report on the critical issue of health disparities and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even in the absence of adequate race and ethnicity data, a clear picture of disparities in COVID-19's impact has nonetheless emerged: Black and Latino communities are the hardest hit. This is not due to features of the virus itself, but is an indicator of social conditions—including population density and socioeconomic status—which put black and Latino individuals at higher risk for contracting and perishing from the respiratory illness.
Dr. Betancourt is on the front lines of the epidemic at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he serves as Vice President and Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, as well as a primary care physician. As a leading expert in health equity, Dr. Betancourt has been named to the City of Boston COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, alongside Quality Interactions CEO, Michele Courton Brown.
This summary of Dr. Betancourt's recent interviews provides a primer on how COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for communities of color and offers direction for how municipalities and institutions should apply immediate efforts to stem the tide.
Cross-cultural communication during a health crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us. This includes the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. It also includes communities of color, immigrant communities, low-income workers, and the prison population.
As more data emerges that show how social inequities are fueling the pandemic in the United States, it is clear that cultural competency and bias awareness in healthcare is more important than ever.
The healthcare system in many states is overwhelmed by cases of COVID-19 and struggling to secure the resources it needs to safely and effectively treat patients. It may seem like too much to ask for physicians and caregivers to be mindful of cross-cultural communication issues and unconscious bias in such hectic conditions.
But this is precisely the time when skills in cultural competency are most needed. The Three Tenets of Cross-Cultural Communication presented below are a helpful touchstone for all of us to keep in mind as we move forward in our professional interactions—whether they be in the most critical care settings or in other roles no doubt touched by our current reality. They may seem like simple recommendations, but there are concrete ways clinicians can actively exhibit them for maximum effect. They are empathy, curiosity, and respect.