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Thousands of medical workers turn out to remember George Floyd and work for health equity

Thousands gathered in the city to draw attention to systemic racism in health care.

Medical staff at a demonstration to draw attention to systemic racism during a "White Coats for Black Lives" demonstration at Lubert Plaza at 10th and Locust Streets during the seventh day of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Medical staff at a demonstration to draw attention to systemic racism during a "White Coats for Black Lives" demonstration at Lubert Plaza at 10th and Locust Streets during the seventh day of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Doctors, nurses, and medical students gathered across the Philadelphia region and the country Friday to honor the memory of George Floyd by vowing to ensure racial justice and equity in health care.

Dubbed “White Coats for Black Lives,” the events — at which participants wore not only white coats but also medical scrubs of every color — drew thousands from Penn Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Temple University, the Virtua system in New Jersey, the Jefferson system, and many more.

The hundreds of health professionals massed at the heart of Thomas Jefferson University on Friday afternoon voiced a truth often unspoken: The outcomes of systemic racism appear in hospitals every day in black patients who fare worse than white oneswhen being treated for diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and a host of other illnesses.

The three months of the coronavirus pandemic has made more obvious how the stress of racism, along with greater poverty and disadvantages in education, jobs, and housing, have left black Americans suffering disproportionately. The coronavirus-related death rates among black Philadelphians are about 30% higher than for the city’s white population.

“We doctors understand this is a fact of medicine,” said Danielle Verghese, an internal medicine resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who also organized a similar but much smaller event Sunday in Washington Square. “Racism is a very real presence in our patients’ lives.”

» READ MORE: From Friday: Peaceful protests and seeking solutions

Another problem for black patients is rarely seeing physicians who look like them. One Jefferson medical school student noted she was one of four black students — all women — in a class of 270.

Doctors also wanted to shed light on biases — even the unconscious ones in the most well-meaning practitioners — that can make people of color feel out of place or even slighted. A neurology resident described cringing when noticing that white doctors spoke to black patients with louder voices or more simple language than they would use with white ones.

Between the effects of the pandemic and the protests this week, event organizers said, the time was right to point out that racism is not solely an issue in law enforcement.

About 2,000 health practitioners from Penn Medicine and CHOP filled Franklin Field at the same time as their Jefferson counterparts.

One woman there wore a paper heart that read, “My black patients’ lives matter!”

Most of the gatherings began at 1 p.m. Friday, and at roughly the same time thousands knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Floyd spent dying under the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

At Franklin Field, Florencia Greer Polite, chief of general obstetrics and gynecology for Penn Medicine, told the crowd to prepare to be uncomfortable. The scoreboard behind her was set to 8:46.

“Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time,” Polite said. “Today we are going to be uncomfortable. Our knees are going to be uncomfortable. … But we’ve been comfortable for too long.”

» READ MORE: The new faces of Type 1 diabetes

Temple University Hospital employees marched down Broad Street to the shuttered Hahnemann University Hospital. All five hospitals and 280 doctors’ offices with the Virtua Health System in New Jersey and Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington also showed their support.

Activism doesn’t come easily for many health-care providers. They’re trained in the scientific method and schooled to keep their beliefs and convictions to themselves, Verghese said.

“We hold ourselves to a high standard of professionalism,” said Traci Trice, Jefferson’s assistant dean for student diversity programs and an assistant professor of family and community medicine. “Sometimes professionalism means being silent when we should not be silent.”

During the rally, she noted that black women are far more likely to die of complications in childbirth — a disparity shown time and again to persist even among women who are highly educated and affluent. Black Americans are less likely to get pain treatment out of the mistaken belief that they feel pain less acutely than white people. A single-digit percentage of American doctors are black, she noted, and patients often are so startled to see black residents, they don’t understand that they are qualified physicians.

Deja Rose, the neurology resident, pointed out that even among people who think they have good intentions, old beliefs and biases can persist and pervade. “It’s just been in the hospital the same things that we see in the rest of the country. Microaggressions. Unconscious bias. Being afraid to speak up.”

» READ MORE: Coronavirus has exposed deep race inequity in health care. Can Philadelphia change the trend?

Jefferson’s president and chief executive, Stephen Klasko, agreed Thursday night after hearing from students and residents that the hospital system would introduce workshops centered on biases and microaggressions, bolster ways to report instances of bias, establish a committee of African American affairs, and commit to establishing a social justice program.

“We see this is unjust,” said Rukaiya Bashir Hamidu, a Nigerian immigrant and Jefferson resident, “and we’re trying to change the narrative and stand by our people.”