In research released late this summer, Brad N. Greenwood, PhD, the lead author of “Physician-patient racial concordance and disparities in birthing mortality for newborns,” concluded that when Black newborns had care from a Black pediatrician, their mortality rate was decreased by half when compared to white babies.
Dr. Greenwood, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Business, took time to answer questions about this research.
Did you determine why Black babies have a better chance of survival?
I want to emphasize how cautious we need to be about speculating about the “why” question, because it is speculative. This is secondary data, so nailing down the exact mechanism is difficult, even if we do see the effect get larger in some places (hospitals that deliver more Black newborns) and smaller in others (Black newborns without comorbidities). But there are several possible explanations:
- We want to be careful not to pathologize Black newborns, but there is evidence that Black newborns can be more medically challenging to treat due to social risk factors and cumulative racial and socioeconomic disadvantages of Black pregnant women. As a result, it may be that Black physicians are more aware and attuned to these challenges than white physicians.
- Issues of spontaneous racial bias, which research does suggest manifest towards both adults and children, could also be at play. As a result, it is conceivable that the newborns are treated differently.
- There may also be challenges accessing preferred caretakers for Black mothers, or an inefficient process of allocating physicians at the hospital level.
- There is evidence in the literature that racial concordance increases trust and communication between patients and providers. While the newborn obviously won’t be speaking to the pediatrician, the mother may be, and this might have an effect.
All of these are possible, so we want to be very careful about the interpretation, since we cannot come down firmly on one mechanism or another. Likely, it is a mix of all these things and potentially more. What we do know is that the effect is persistent under a lot of conditions and gets bigger when Black newborns are born in hospitals which deliver many Black babies. This at least suggests part of the explanation may be institutional.
Your findings state that it doesn’t matter if the birth mothers share the same race as the physician. So if a white mom gives birth to a Black baby, the chances of the baby surviving are increased here as well if the doctor is Black?
When we are investigating the mother, the physician changes from being the pediatrician to being the obstetrician (the two physicians are almost always different). There is no spillover examination where we look at the effect of the mother’s physician on the newborn.
Why the effect doesn’t manifest for mothers is also speculative. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it could simply be that maternal mortality is an order of magnitude lower than newborn mortality. It is also possible that there is no effect of concordance in these situations.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in 2018, 5% of all physicians identified as Black. If there are so few Black physicians overall, what will need to happen so that babies of color get the care they need to survive? What do your results mean for the care of newborn babies of color now and in the future? How can your study’s results impact the health care system for the better? How can health care workers prevent this disparity from occurring? If they can’t on their own, what needs to happen?
I will answer these all together as they seem to be related. The speculative nature of the mechanism, to me, highlights that more research is needed to understand the precise dynamics behind the finding. Specifically:
- whether physician race serves as a proxy for differences in physician practice behavior,
- if so, which practices, and
- what actions can be taken by policy makers, administrators, and physicians to ensure that all newborns receive optimal care.
The work, in my mind, is a starting point. It identifies an issue that is a real problem and provides some paths forward. But a lot of work remains to understand the issue in its entirety.
More directly to your question, I also think the work underscores the need to continue the diversification of the medical workforce. Inasmuch as research suggests stereotyping and implicit bias contribute to racial disparities in health outcomes, I think the work also highlights the need for hospitals and other care organizations to invest in efforts to reduce such biases and explore their connection to institutional racism. But the effort doesn’t simply rest on the shoulders of hospital administrators. Reducing racial disparities in newborn mortality also requires raising awareness among physicians, nurses, and other health care actors about the prevalence of these disparities, furthering diversity initiatives, and revisiting the organizational routines in low performing hospitals in order to determine why these effects persist.
What is key is that we identify high performing physicians, teams, and acute care centers, identify what makes them higher performing, and then promulgate that information to lower performing locations.
What else should our readers know?
There is one thing I think bears specific note. One conclusion we have heard is that this means Black newborns should immediately be funneled to Black physicians. There are three critical flaws with this logic:
- The disproportionately white physician workforce makes this untenable because there are too few Black physicians to service the entire population (5% of practitioners vs 13% of the population). This would mean the market is functionally underserved as you highlight above.
- It avoids the foundational concern of resolving the disparities in care offered by white physicians. This would mean that even if improvements are made there is still the chance that a newborn would not receive sufficient care in an emergency situation.
- Physician performance varies widely among physicians of both races. There are tremendous physicians of both races, and there are underperforming physicians of both races too. So it isn’t really an effective selection criteria.
What we have is a situation where structural issues are causing babies to die. I don’t think any of the members of the coauthor team would claim this is a function of malice on the part of physicians. But if we are going to solve the problem, we first need to acknowledge that disparities of care exist. Once we do that, we can start to fix them.