Racism is a Public Health Crisis
Despite my complaints about the long winters, I’ve lived in Minnesota my entire life.
From the outside looking in, Minnesota is a healthy state. Our metropolitan areas are consistently ranked as some of the best places to get out and be active, and we have parks and trails that make it easy for many to enjoy the wonders of all four seasons. We are home to world-renowned research institutions and facilities, and we have a strong healthcare industry with prominent players in both the public and private sectors.
Yet not all Minnesotans experience health and healthcare the same way. And not all Minnesotans have the same opportunities to achieve their best health. Minnesota may be known for medical innovation and places for recreation, but we still have some of the worst health disparities in the country. And these disparities disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized communities.
On FINN Voices, the radio program I co-host, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bukata Hayes, Chief Equity Officer and Vice President of Racial & Health Equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, where he is responsible for the Blue Cross racial and health equity strategy. This includes working to integrate all diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts across the entire company to fully embrace the values and practices of being an antiracist organization. Through this lens he serves as an advisor and strategic leader across the organization to identify and implement initiatives that bring about greater inclusiveness, representation, and lasting change.
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Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has been ahead of its time when it comes to addressing health inequities in Minnesota communities. Their interventions include the creation of the Blue Cross Foundation in 1986 to address societal factors that impact health and the historic tobacco settlement in the 1990s when Blue Cross sued big tobacco and won, resulting in the creation of the Center for Prevention to address Minnesota’s most pressing public health issues.
Our conversation covered a lot of ground – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the mainstream racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd to inequities that have plagued our state for its entire history.
Hayes explained that health is about so much more than healthcare. Only 10% of health is influenced by clinical care or what happens in the doctor’s office, and another 10% by genetics. The remaining 80% is a result of the physical environment, health behaviors, and social and economic factors such as income, community connections, housing, quality education, and food security. The presence or absence of such factors determines the health of a community, along with the health inequities it faces, and when you factor in r ace, or moreover racism, it serves as the ultimate multiplier of inequities.
For example, if you do not have access to a quality grocery store – as is the case for over 340,000 Minnesotans that face both distance and income as a barrier to obtaining healthy, affordable food – it becomes understandably challenging to eat healthy. If you do not have access to parks and trails or a safe place for kids to play outside, physical activity becomes a challenge. If you are exploited by tobacco companies targeting your community by selling addictive bubble gum and tutti fruity flavored tobacco products at cheap prices, resisting or quitting becomes incredibly difficult.
I’ve been on my own journey of discovery and learning in terms of racial and health equity and know enough to understand that I – like most of us – still have a lot to learn about bias, racism, and even false narratives in the media. When I asked Hayes for a few things that companies can do to better understand the root causes of health inequities and work toward a more equitable future, he shared a list of resources to help folks learn, reflect and change. It’s incumbent upon all of us to do our part:
- Understand root causes of racism and how it is embedded: Racism doesn’t exist naturally, instead it is formed out of a need to manipulate power and control among groups. Start disassembling these structures of control but understanding the basics of how racism came to be.
- Learn more about benefits of diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging: Many of us have heard of diversity and inclusion, and even have business initiatives devoted to it. Learn more about what it means, and why it’s more important than ever.
- Explore your own unconscious bias: We all have unconscious biases; they are inevitable. But within an organization these biases can expand and solidify over time, creating deep blind spots that affect how you recruit, attract and retain talented workers.
- Champion representation: The faces and voices that shape the way we work don’t always reflect our own. Representation is a critical issue facing so many organizations across Minnesota.
Advancing racial and health equity will take collaboration between health providers, payers, employers, communities, governments, and every other aspect of society.