Thousands of people die every year from treatable conditions because they are black and the cost to the health care system of allowing this is more than $1 trillion, Dayna Bowen Matthews of the University of Virginia Law School and author of the book “Achieving Just Medicine” told a packed house at Southern Oregon University on Monday night.
Her presentation, part of the Race Awareness Week series of events coordinated by the university’s Multicultural Resource Center, included the number 84,000 as the death toll of being black. This is how many “extra” people of color die of treatable conditions such as cancer and heart disease from a failure to diagnose sooner. “For every disease category that you can think of we saw unequal outcomes for people of color,” Matthews said. “Treatment and outcomes are not equal.”
Black women are twice as likely to lose a baby to death as compared to white women. Education and income are not factors in this. “Middle income black women will still lose babies twice as often as a white woman living below the poverty line. There is something pernicious. I contend it is due to unconscious bias.”
The author was brought in as a guest of the Oregon State University School of Nursing housed on the SOU campus to discuss her research on the social determents of health. It’s a body of work which looks at issues of race, gender and poverty and the impacts of bias on short and long term health.
Matthews holds a Juris Doctorate and was a practicing attorney working in the fields of social justice when she began to see the factors that impact people of color such as environment, healthcare and criminal justice attitudes and norms.
She worked in Flint, Michigan, where lead flows through the water pipes affected thousands of residents. The problem first showed up in 2014 and the water remains undrinkable today. Flint is 56 percent black. Many of the people who live there are below the poverty line. “80 percent of public housing is built on Superfund Clean up sites,” Matthews told the 400 or so people in the Rogue River Room in Stevenson Union. “You’ve got to be screening (patients medically) for social needs and connecting them to decent housing and food.”
She expressly discussed the fact that the rise of people spending more than half their income on housing is also affecting health. “When people have to spend that much money on rent they have to cut back on other things. They go without good food.”
Matthews offered implicit bias as the major cause of poor outcomes for people of color. “Implicit bias will override your better self. It’s not the same as racism, but it can have the same impact.” Her work focuses on how implicit bias, which is an unconscious way of thinking which categorizes people based on experience, can be dangerous since many people are not aware they have it.
She used herself as an example. “I am one of the few people, less than 2 percent, who has a black bias. I grew up in a segregated neighborhood until I was in the fourth grade. All the people I knew who were kind and helpful were black.”
Matthews spoke to overcoming bias by first being aware, creating systems and being open. She described it as malleable. “When people know, they can go to efforts to avoid it.” She told the room of citizens and students, nurses and medical professionals the change she went through in looking at it. At one time she believed that racism and bigotry were not the same as implicit bias. She now told the audience she still does not seem them as the same but sees they are part of a spectrum. “Implicit bias works both ways and we create a feedback loop.”
The important thing is to recognize it and work to overcome it as soon as a patient comes for treatment.
Matthews showed a photo of her moving van. She was scheduled to arrive in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 to begin her position at UVA. It was the same day Neo-Nazi white supremacists stormed the campus with torches and a protestor, Heather Heyer, died at the hands of a driver who struck her. Dr. Matthews did not move that day. The moving company refused to go until it settled down. But she shared this: “We all bear responsibility for Charlottesville.”
As audience members examined her photos of Nazis and those who fought them, she pointed out the police not intervening. “The police just watched. But young people, like this man is being kicked and punched on the ground standing against racism and hate. He gave his body to the cause and he is my inspiration.”
Matthews said there are three sides to every story. In this case the story of hate, the story of those who fought against it and the institutions who can change it. She compared it to an Aspen forest which looks like many different trees but underneath is one organism. “We are connected,” she said.
Matthews ended her presentation with a photo of Heyer. “I am welcoming the opportunity to have more conversations like this.”
After roughly 90 minutes of total silence in attention the crowd erupted in applause. Matthews smiled while expressing surprise as a long standing ovation and loud applause broke out.
Her presentation is also part of an annual series of discussion sponsored by the School of Nursing to enlighten and inform about issues of equity and patient care.
Race Awareness Week events wrap up Thursday, Nov. 9, “Brother to Brother” from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the SOU Stevenson Union Diversions Room on the first floor. It’s intended as an “At the Table Conversation” for men of color to have about their existence at SOU, in the Rogue Valley, and as part of the greater society.
Also on Thursday will be a campus-wide potluck with Brent Florendo, the SOU Native Nations Liaison. This potluck, presented by Native American Student Union and SOU’s Multicultural Resource Center, includes family-centric traditional storytelling. It’s set for 6 to 8 p.m. in the Stevenson Union Rogue River Room.
Contact Marvin Woodard at [email protected] or go to tinyurl.com/raw2017pl to sign up for the potluck.
For more information on Race Awareness Week, call 541-552-8791 or email [email protected].