The persistent drumbeat of depersonalized data about the death toll of COVID-19 on people of color was suddenly contrasted in the past few weeks with yet more individual faces of fatal racial violence. These sickening and infuriating illness and injury outcomes are the result of long-standing structural racial injustices. My deepest sympathy goes out to the families and loved ones of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and so many others who have fallen victim to our collective inability to address this deeply problematic reality.
In preparing this note, I have been reflecting on what our colleague and past ACPM President, Dr. Dan Blumenthal, might have said in this moment. Dan’s career-long commitment to justice, health, and well-being was inspiring to those of us practicing preventive medicine today. As ACPM President, Dan presided over the Preventive Medicine 2017 conference by inviting important perspectives regarding how we can and should directly address homelessness and racial injustice from within the public health and medical ecosystems. I reflect on those sessions frequently, and I think Dan would tell us to keep fighting the good fight.
As preventive medicine physicians, we pay close attention to health disparities. We measure it, we describe it, we identify programs that might help to reduce disparities by focusing on the hardest hit populations. In addition, we work on the upstream inequities that drive these disparities, including racial injustice.
But prevention is rooted in optimism about and personal agency to create a healthy future. As I reflected on times when my optimism or sense of agency flagged, the causes were many but never the color of my skin. I realized with a sinking feeling that in my enthusiasm for prevention and preventive medicine, I have never considered this obvious challenge to the effectiveness of our work. How can we promote prevention and eliminate disparities if we do not first eliminate racial injustice – an insidious thief of optimism, agency, and resilience?
We must continue to build and act on the science about health disparities and social inequities and how to directly address them. But we must also increase our vigilance for our own blindspots and for the policies and institutional norms within our own organizations that purposefully or inadvertently create racial injustices and take action to reverse them. And finally, let us join our individual voices by bringing our collective knowledge, science, and experience into a powerful chorus for change. We are a college – our shared values are what bring us together; we can all learn from each other, and we can stand together for change.
As a first step, and to honor his memory and legacy, ACPM will create the Daniel S. Blumenthal Annual Lecture that will focus on how we can contribute to ending structural racism, in continuation of Dr. Blumenthal’s 40 year career teaching students at Morehouse School of Medicine how to better care for and serve disadvantaged communities. The lectureship will be held during our Preventive Medicine conference (or a virtual counterpart) to continue our commitment to educating ourselves and taking effective action. I hope you will join me in this and other efforts to join our voices together to end structural racism and racial injustice.
Stephanie Zaza, MD, MPH, FACPM
President, American College of Preventive Medicine