The cost of unequal healthcare is measured in human life, says Dr. Stephen Lockhart, the African American chief medical officer at Sutter Health, a non-profit healthcare network with 24 hospitals located across Northern California.
Lockhart made this chilling observation while talking about the growing body of evidence that is confirming that more minorities and disadvantaged people are getting infected, being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 than White, middle class and wealthier Americans.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped a Band-Aid off of the structural inequities that exist within our society. We must address these disparities right away,” Lockhart explains, adding “We have a moral obligation to do so.”
Last month, Sutter Health’s Advancing Equity Team released a report in the journal Health Affairs, a publication that focuses on health policy. The study found that Black COVID-19 patients in California are 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized than their Non-Hispanic, White counterparts. It also reported that they “tend to arrive at Sutter healthcare facilities sicker and with more severe symptoms.”
Based in Sacramento, Sutter Health serves more than 3 million people across 22 California counties.
Even when Blacks in California have health insurance, the study revealed that African Americans may not seek testing and care until their illnesses become emergencies — when the likelihood of dying is highest. The report focused its research on areas in Northern California — including neighborhoods with historical African American enclaves like Hunters Point Bay View in San Francisco and East Oakland in Alameda County.
Lockhart and the researchers at Sutter say the study points to how socioeconomic variables can factor into the high rates of African American infection, hospitalizations and death. For example, African Americans tend to go farther away to seek care hospital through emergency rooms than to visit health care centers located closer to their homes. And because a large number of Blacks work in “essential” jobs, they may not be able to get excused from work to get testing when they first start to experience COVID-19 symptoms.
For the study, Sutter collected data from patients ages 18 or older who had visited or been treated at Sutter Health facilities. Then, using its electronic health record (EHR) system, Sutter scientists broke the study’s subjects into two groups – suspected cases and confirmed cases.
The researchers also applied the data to its Health Equity Index, a metric Sutter Health has used in a similar study on Asthma, to come up with the findings of the COVID-19 report. The asthma study, much like this one, crystallizes the stubborn racial health gap that persists in California and around the country