The President’s Podium: It’s Time for Equal Treatment

By Ronald Dunlap, M.D., President, Massachusetts Medical Society

When the Institute of Medicine published its groundbreaking report on DSC_0003 Dunlap 4x6 color 300 ppi_editedhealth care disparities in March of 2002, the topic touched a raw nerve in the medical community. Almost overnight, health care disparities became a top priority for medical professionals and policymakers alike.

Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care disclosed what all of us consider to be a distressing and unacceptable aspect of health care in America: that racial and ethnic minorities receive poorer quality medical care than whites, even when such factors as insurance coverage, ability to pay, and access to care were equal among the groups.  It is also quite clear that socioeconomic status and poverty contribute to health care disparities.

More than a decade after the IOM’s report, health care disparities still commands our attention, a topic increasing in importance, as our population continues to undergo demographic changes.

For years, the Massachusetts Medical Society has been one of the leading voices in the effort to reduce health care disparities in the Commonwealth. Our members have worked to educate our colleagues about the issue. We have testified before the state legislature in support of bills to reduce disparities in care. We have examined the ethical aspects of disparities, and our patient education efforts have focused on the subject.

I am proud to say we are continuing our efforts.

Our 2014 Public Health Leadership Forum, The Impact of Health Care Reform on Health Care Disparities (occurring Friday, April 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) brings together some of the nation’s best health care experts to discuss how reform efforts may affect disparities in care. This forum, moderated by Lenny Lopez, M.D., Chair of the MMS Committee on Diversity in Medicine, adds a new dimension to our efforts on health care disparities, as it is being conducted in collaboration with the Commission to End Health Care Disparities.

The Commission was formed in 2004 by the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association, with the National Hispanic Medical Association joining soon thereafter, to respond to the IOM’s report. It has become the nation’s leading advocate to reduce disparities in care.  The MMS has had and continues to have a seat at the table: Alice Coombs, M.D., MMS past president and past chair of the Committee on Diversity in Medicine, has represented MMS on this committee for several years.

Among the scheduled participants in our Leadership Forum are Commission Co-Chairs Jeremy Lazarus, M.D., immediate past president of the American Medical Association, and Lawrence Sanders, M.D., president-elect of the National Medical Association. Besides looking at the effect of reform on disparities in care, participants will also address how changes in policy and practice and such areas as pay for performance and technology can reduce disparities in care.

Our continuing efforts also include a new dedicated web page on health care disparities that provides research and reports on the topic, resources and activities to identify and reduce disparities, strategies and tools to help eliminate them in the physician’s office, and information on the role of a diverse physician workforce in addressing differences in care.

And to bring the message beyond the medical profession, our April episode of Physician Focus, the MMS’s monthly patient education television program, discusses the issue in depth, describing the causes and consequences of health care disparities and what physicians and patients can do to reduce these differences and improve care. Hosting this show is Dr. Coombs, with Milagros Abreu, M.D., Vice Chair of the Committee on Diversity in Medicine, joining me as a guest. An accompanying print article is also being distributed to media across the state.

Twelve years after the Institute of Medicine’s report, we are making progress in reducing disparities, certainly more slowly than we would like, but making progress nonetheless. It is clear that reducing disparities will involve the efforts of everyone in health care – all physicians, providers, payers, and policymakers, and, yes, even patients.

My hope is that our upcoming efforts will signify a renewed commitment to equal treatment. It is a goal worth pursuing and achieving, and it’s time is long overdue.

The President’s Podium appears periodically on the MMS Blog, offering Dr. Dunlap’s commentary on a range of issues in health and medicine.