These are extraordinary times and few things make that fact more clear than a virtual national conference. Thousands of health center advocates are not gathering under one roof for the Community Health Institute as in years past. Instead, they are at home fighting an unprecedented pandemic in a year that has been like no other. NACHC Board Chair Lathran Woodard noted as much in today’s virtual General Session.
“Facing the COVID crisis these last 5 months we’ve been tested and challenged,” said Woodard. “I believe that these trials and tribulations we are going through will make us even stronger as a movement; as well as show the country, our states and communities the vital role we have always filled in the local delivery systems.” Woodard also acknowledged the lives lost to the pandemic among both health center patients and providers.
The General Session also featured speakers who addressed the tumult of our times — the pandemic and systemic racism. Keynote speaker Dr. Damon Tweedy, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Black Man in a White Coat – A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine,” and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, spoke thoughtfully about the intersection between race and health. He drew from his own experiences with discrimination as an exceptionally smart student considered a “unicorn or anomaly” and as a medical resident confronting racism. Dr. Tweedy underscored that we have to move forward in how health disparities are addressed; that the usual explanations for disparities — poverty, zipcode, poor access to medical care and unhealthy lifestyle choices, to name a few — are valid, but, while “13 percent of the U.S. population is African American, about only 4 percent of practicing doctors are black.”
Educating the next generation of black physicians is essential, but medical education must also address the bias that providers can often convey in the exam room in treating people of color. As he wrote in this recent New York Times op-ed, “Racial health disparities can’t change until the health system changes itself. Starting that transformation means shifting the way that medical students are taught the interplay between race and health.”
Following the keynote was Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and former Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Cohen drilled down on COVID-19 and the key role health centers will play in the recovery by providing “access to care, closing health disparities gaps and further integration into the public health infrastructure.” Cohen also talked about the lasting value of telehealth in providing “medicine without walls.”
Lastly, the General Session also featured two very important awards: the John Lewis Community Health Center Civil Rights Award went to the Georgia Primary Care Association, recognizing their outstanding leadership and tireless advocacy on behalf of Georgia’s Community Health Centers and the patients they serve. Also, the Elijah J. Cummings National Award for Outstanding Leadership went to the Mid-Atlantic Association of Community Health Centers and in memory of their recently passed CEO Karen Williams.
Check in to NACHC’s CHI@Home tomorrow for more discussion about the latest in federal policy and other great sessions. And follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #NACHC20CHI!