This post, by the Director of NYLPI’s Health Justice Program, originally appeared on the blog of the Committee of Interns & Residents, which is fighting for the right to unionize at St. Barnabas Hospital. You can read more about CIR’s efforts here.
Last summer, on her wedding night, Juana R. arrived at the St. Barnabas Hospital emergency department with severe abdominal pain. A Spanish-speaker, Ms. R. needed an interpreter to communicate effectively with her providers, but she was never given one. Instead, from the moment of her arrival at the ED, to her transfer to the ICU, to her eventual discharge a month later, she was systematically silenced by the hospital. Invasive tests and procedures were performed without obtaining Ms. R.’s consent (she signed a litany of documents in English only). Various medication regimens were attempted, many of which caused extreme pain and nausea, but Ms. R had no way of properly communicating these problems to her providers. Only after legal intervention did this patient receive the communication assistance services she needed in order to understand her diagnosis and the reason for her admission. Now, over a year after her discharge from Barnabas, Ms. R. remains emphatic that she will never again return to the hospital for care. She describes what she endured as a nightmare. 
As previously reported on this blog, Ms. R.’s case resulted in St. Barnabas Hospital being cited by the State Department of Health for failure to comply with public health regulations. More broadly, her experience speaks to the ways in which poor hospital administration can compromise patient care and exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities in health care.
Well-known studies about the relationship between race and health care have focused on the individual patient-provider interaction – on how inter-personal biases and prejudices can sway treatment decisions. However, in my experience as a civil rights lawyer in this field, I have found that institutional racism is a more salient factor than individual animus in explaining my clients’ negative encounters with the health care system. Patients like Ms. R. are denied the interpretation services to which they are entitled not because of the ill will of particular caregivers, but because, more typically, hospitals like Barnabas are not managed well enough to have the policies and practices in place to ensure timely access to important support services – a systems failure that hurts patients and providers.
My office has also found that, across the city, health care institutions will steer Medicaid and uninsured patients, who are disproportionately people of color, into poorly equipped and under-staffed clinic settings while “better” patients (i.e. white, privately insured patients) are sent to the faculty practices. At the broadest level, this upward redistribution of health care resources has meant that hospitals located in New York City’s low-income communities of color have closed down over the past decade, while facilities located in more affluent white communities have thrived. In some cases, the hospitals that shut their doors had patient populations that were over 90% African-American, Latino and Asian.
Viewed in this way, the primary way to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health care is to overhaul the institutions that create and perpetuate racial and economic disparities within medicine. This means more people like Ms. R. stepping forward and demanding investigations of unlawful practices at hospitals like St. Barnabas. It also means more communities raising their voices against hospital policies that enrich some while impoverishing others. Ultimately, it means more of us—all of us—speaking out against health care institutions designed to promote private gain over the public’s health.