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Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is taking action to fight implicit bias and racial discrimination in the state’s healthcare system. In a July 9 Executive Directive, the governor called upon the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to “establish new rules requiring all health care professionals to receive training on implicit bias and the way it affects delivery of health care services.”

Implicit bias, according to the directive, encompasses “thoughts and feelings that, by definition, often exist outside of conscious awareness, and therefore are difficult to control.” Bias of this sort “can shape behavior, including the behavior of health care professionals. One way to reduce disparities in health outcomes, therefore, is to seek to eliminate the unconscious biases, misconceptions, and stereotypes…”

Whitmer’s implicit bias directive is the result of a recommendation by her Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which has been mandated to seek out “solutions to the disparate effects of COVID-19 on people of color.” Overcoming implicit bias is a vital step toward reducing health disparities, as Black, Latinx, and indigenous patients often receive substandard care—such as inadequate pain relief, dismissiveness, and treatment based on physical and cultural misconceptions—as a result of discrimination on the part of healthcare providers.

The implicit bias initiative emerged from a task force that was created after legislators became aware of the wildly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color. According to Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan is “one of first—and sadly, one of the few states—that reports [COVID] cases and deaths by race and ethnicity.” In her directive, Whitmer observes: “As of July 5, 2020, Black Michiganders represented 14% of the state population, but over 35% of confirmed COVID-19 cases where the race of the patient was known…. And Michigan is no outlier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ‘non-Hispanic Black persons have a [COVID-19 associated hospitalization] rate approximately 4.7 times that of non-Hispanic White persons.’ Moreover, Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, according to CDC data. Indigenous populations have experienced a hospitalization rate even higher than that of Black Americans.”

Other task forces to combat racial bias have recently been formed by the US Navy, the Duke University Global Health Institute, and the state of North Carolina.

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Koren Thomas
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