Black Healthcare Summit: It’s time to erase systemic anti-Black racism from healthcare

2020-10-14 4:00:16 PM

Systemic anti-Black racism is directly impacting the lives, health and well-being of Canada’s Black communities – a reality that has long been felt by Black people in Canada and has been starkly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the message heard loud and clear at the virtual Black Healthcare Summit hosted by Women’s College Hospital Foundation on October 6, where a panel of healthcare leaders shared insights into the key issues contributing to poor health outcomes for Black people in Canada – and particularly Black women.

You can view the full recording of the Black Healthcare Summit here.

Jennifer Bernard, President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation and the moderator of Tuesday’s summit, said that the event was meant to shine a light on how racism influences healthcare for Black communities – often in ways that many can’t or won’t see.

“There’s overwhelming evidence of racism in healthcare, but we tend to be blind to it,” she said. “Yet we know that Black people regardless of their socio-economic status consistently have the worst health outcomes of any population in Canada next to Indigenous Peoples.”

According to panelist Dr. Onye Nnorom, President of the Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario, the impact of anti-Black racism and stereotypes rooted in Canada’s hidden history of slavery are critical determinants of health for Black communities and issues that have long impacted how Black people are treated within the healthcare system.

“The stereotypes that persist today about Black people were created during slavery,” she said. “That Blacks are less intelligent, have a different pain threshold or can’t be trusted. This history has led to an exclusion of Black people from the field of medicine while putting Black people in Canada at risk of being treated with less dignity when seeking healthcare because of the colour of their skin.”

Negative interactions with the healthcare system and socioeconomic factors stemming from systemic anti-Black racism have all worked together to create unique health challenges for Black communities. For example, Black women in Canada are 43% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women while Black populations nationwide have higher rates of obesity, hypertension and diabetes.

“Many of these health issues are a direct result of chronic stress experienced by Black individuals, and particularly Black women, due to the day-to-day racism they face,” said Dr. Nnorom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the health impacts of anti-Black racism in Canada: in Toronto, Black individuals represent 21% of all COVID-19 cases despite comprising just 9% of the overall population. “This is largely because members of the Black community are overrepresented in service-related roles where they’re more likely to be exposed to the virus and can’t stay home and self-isolate,” said Dr. Nnorom. “And again, this is due to systemic racism.”

In fact, the available data paints such a dire picture of the health of Black Canadians that the Toronto Board of Health declared anti-Black racism as a public health emergency back in June.

“A lot of healthcare professionals and researchers haven’t seen Black health as a priority,” said panelist Lydia-Joi Marshall, Vice President of the Black Health Alliance. “But COVID-19 has pushed the issue to the front of the agenda.”

Key takeaways from the Black Healthcare Summit

With a goal to educate participants about the systemic issues impacting the health of Black people in Canada and steps that need to be taken to create change, the Summit’s panelists offered a series of insights and recommendations.

Key takeaways included:

  • Structural change is needed to increase the number of Black healthcare leaders and researchers in Canada, who in turn influence policies and health studies to improve the health outcomes of Black people in Canada. 
  • Direct funding of data collection is needed for research examining the roles of race and racism in healthcare to improve our collective understanding of the specific barriers facing Black people in Canada when it comes to their health. 
  • Although a robust body of data examining health issues by race is urgently needed, healthcare leaders must ensure this data is not used to further reinforce harmful stereotypes that stigmatize the black community.
  • Targeted investments are urgently needed to mobilize resources around addressing the complex barriers to equitable healthcare faced by Black people in Canada, including consultations with anti-racism experts and funding to protect the time of staff engaging in this critical work.
  • To increase Black representation in research studies and screening interventions for priority health issues like cancer and diabetes, health researchers must partner with community organizations serving Black communities, intentionally include Black individuals in research studies and address the barriers that prevent Black people from participating.
  • Current interventions and training for health issues like skin diseases are primarily targeted at white skin. More research is needed to better understand risk factors associated with Black or non-white skin and appropriate treatments.
  • Healthcare professionals should receive training on how to engage with racialized minorities who may have had very negative lived experiences that are amplified when they interact with healthcare professionals.
The summit also drew attention to the work taking place at Women’s College Hospital to improve health equity for Black communities. In March, Women’s College Hospital Foundation launched the Emily Stowe Society, demonstrating its commitment to increase the representation of racialized women in the health sciences, and the hospital is laying important groundwork for a new Skin of Colour Centre of Excellence to advance its clinical and research focus on understanding and treating skin diseases for individuals with darker skin.

Other hospital initiatives, like the
Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers and the Crossroads Refugee Clinic, are also focusing their work on creating systemic change for Black communities and other racialized minorities.

Thank you to our panelists!

Women’s College Hospital Foundation extends its deepest gratitude to the seven incredible panelists who contributed to this important conversation:
  • Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir: Scientist, Women's College Research Institute; Cardiologist, Women's College Hospital; Director, Black Physicians' Association of Ontario 
  • Elaine Goulbourne: Administrative Director, Peter Gilgan Centre for Women's Cancers; Director, Clinical Resources, Women's College Hospital 
  • Dr. Marissa Joseph: Dermatologist and Pediatrician; Medical Director, Ricky Kanee Schachter Dermatology Centre, Women’s College Hospital 
  • Dr. Aisha Lofters: Chair, Implementation Science, Peter Gilgan Centre for Women's Cancers, Women's College Hospital; Associate Professor, University of Toronto 
  • Lydia-Joi Marshall: Vice-President, Black Health Alliance; Research Associate, University Health Network 
  • Dr. Onye Nnorom: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, DFCM, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto; Black Health Theme Lead, MD Program, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto; Associate Program Director, University of Toronto; President, Black Physicians' Association of Ontario 
  • Dr. Meb Rashid: Medical Director, Crossroads Clinic, Women's College Hospital 
For more information about the Black Healthcare Summit and how you can get involved to help make a difference, please contact:

Sara Byrnell
Vice President, Philanthropy & Partnerships
Women’s College Hospital Foundation

Thank you to our sponsors!