Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Chief Medical Executive for the State of Michigan, discusses the impact of health disparities on marginalized communities, particularly those of color, at the Medical Science Building Tuesday evening. Keith Melong/Daily. Buy this photo.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the State of Michigan’s chief medical executive, delivered the inaugural Susan Moore, M.D. Memorial Lecture Tuesday night. The lecture, titled “Recognizing and Addressing Health Inequities: Building Upon The Lessons Learned During COVID-19,” was hosted by Michigan Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology to honor Dr. Susan Moore, a 2002 graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School. In 2020, Moore passed away from COVID-19 after posting a video speaking out about receiving racially biased treatment in an Indiana hospital.

Dr. Matthew Wixson, assistant professor of anesthesiology and the department’s associate chair for diversity, said the video received national attention. As a person of Color working in healthcare, Wixson said watching it affected him on a deeply personal level. 

“If it can happen to Dr. Moore, who was a celebrated and accomplished graduate (of medical school), it can happen to anybody,” Wixson said. “Today and in the future, Dr. Moore’s legacy is an inspiration to make lasting change.”

Bagdasarian said Moore’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic called attention to preexisting racial health disparities seen across the country. Bagdasarian said at one point in May 2020, the COVID-19 mortality rate was five times higher for non-Hispanic Blacks in Michigan than non-Hispanic whites. According to Bagdasarian, health disparities are caused by socioeconomic differences, reduced access to healthcare, education and healthy food and exposure to racial and ethnic discrimination.

“You’re seeing that disparity,” Bagdasarian said. “You’re seeing that (COVID-19) cases in African Americans were much higher.”

In addition to disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths, Bagdasarian said there has also been a significant difference in vaccination rates between different racial and ethnic groups. She said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 51.7% of non-Hispanic whites in Michigan have completed an initial COVID-19 vaccination sequence, while only 39.5% of non-Hispanic Blacks have. Bagdasarian said part of this difference can be explained by previous medical mistreatment of Black Americans, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted from 1932 to 1972, which resulted in a marked mistrust in the healthcare system.

“We’ve heard about fears about what has been done to Black communities in the past,” Bagdasarian said. “We’ve also heard that Black voices are not listened to.”

According to Bagdasarian, there have been numerous local and statewide efforts in Michigan to address health disparities based on race and other demographic identities. One of the steps Bagdasarian found effective was the establishment of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities in April 2020, which was launched by Executive Order 2020-55 in an effort to address racial disparities in healthcare.

“This was a task force of community leaders, health care professionals (and) people from the affected communities coming together and trying to solve this problem of health disparities,” Bagdasarian said. “Their goals were to increase transparency in data recording, reduce barriers to mental health and medical care, to decrease medical bias, improve infrastructure and support recovery.” 

Bagdasarian said the task force partnered with local communities throughout the state to establish COVID-19 testing sites and vaccination centers, relying on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index to determine what areas would most benefit from healthcare infrastructure. Besides the pop-up sites, Bagdasarian said it is important to make sure that vaccines become more widely available at trusted medical centers, including primary care offices and family healthcare facilities.

“We know that trusted messengers are key,” Bagdasarian said. “One of the things that’s come up again and again when we’ve done focus groups is that patients who are hesitant about vaccines for themselves or their children. They want to talk to their trusted messenger. … They want to talk to a physician they know and trust, and they want to get their children vaccinated by their pediatrician. That’s not happening.”

Bagdasarian emphasized that while racial disparities in health care became more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are part of a longstanding systemic issue. In urban areas of Michigan, she said, Black infants are about three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants, and the maternal mortality rate is also higher amongst Black Michiganders than White Michiganders. 

“So how do we dismantle this system?” Bagdasarian asked. “I think everyone can tackle it in a way, but we must do the work.”

Dr. Kevin Chan, professor of pulmonary critical care medicine, attended the lecture and told The Michigan Daily that he knows health disparities across various racial, ethnic and gender-based demographics are frustrating because he has tried to address them in his own work. However, they continue to persist due to their systemic nature, making it difficult for marginalized communities to restore trust in the healthcare industry.

“We know what we need to do, but we have been unsuccessful at achieving the right thing to do,” Chan said. “The other thing is, every day I’ve learned of new ways that inhibit our ability to reduce disparity … so that’s my frustration with healthcare.”

LSA sophomore Paige Johnson hopes to work in public health one day. She said she was glad to see a state government official like Bagdasarian speaking to the U-M community about these health disparities. She said knowing that students, faculty and staff are discussing these issues and are working to come up with solutions makes her optimistic about the future of healthcare.

“We can still be the generation to fix this,” Johnson said. “Our generation is becoming more and more aware of these issues, becoming more and more active (and) fighting for equality.”

Daily Staff Reporter Nadia Taeckens can be reached at taeckens@umich.edu.