Tagged Study

Emergency Medical Responders Confront Racial Bias

A recent study out of Oregon suggests emergency medical responders — EMTs and paramedics — may be treating minority patients differently from the way they treat white patients.

Specifically, the scientists found that black patients in their study were 40 percent less likely to get pain medication than their white peers.

Jamie Kennel, head of emergency medical services programs at Oregon Health and Science University and the Oregon Institute of Technology, led the research, which was presented in December at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Scientific Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

The researchers received a grant to produce the internal report for the Oregon Emergency Medical Services department and the Oregon Office of Rural Health.

Outright discrimination by paramedics is rare, the researchers say, and illegal; in these cases, unconscious bias may be at work.

A few years ago, Leslie Gregory was one of a very few black female emergency medical technicians working in Lenawee County, Mich. She said the study’s findings ring true based on her experience.

She remembered one particular call — the patient was down and in pain. As the EMTs arrived at the scene, Gregory could see the patient was black. And that’s when one of her colleagues groaned.

“I think it was something like: ‘Oh, my God. Here we go again,’” Gregory said. She worried — then, as now — that because the patient was black, her colleague assumed he was acting out to get pain medication.

“I am absolutely sure this was unconscious,” added Gregory, who now lives and works in Portland, Ore., where she founded a nonprofit to spread awareness about racial disparities in health care. “At the time, I remember, it increased my stress as we rode up on this person. Because I thought, ‘Now am I going to have to fight my colleague for more pain medication, should that arise?’”

Leslie Gregory, a Portland physician assistant, asks, “How can a person of color not disrespect a system that is constantly studying and talking about these disparities, but does nothing to fix it?” She wants the CDC to declare the effects of racism a national health crisis.(Kristian Foden-Vencil/Oregon Public Broadcasting)

Unconscious bias can be subtle — but, as this new report shows, it may be one of the factors behind race-linked health disparities seen across the U.S.

The study looked at 104,000 medical charts of ambulance patients from 2015 to 2017. It found that minority patients were less likely to receive morphine and other pain medication compared with white patients — regardless of socioeconomic factors, such as health insurance status.

During a shift change at American Medical Response headquarters in Portland,  EMTs and paramedics discussed the issue with a reporter as they got their rigs ready for the next shift.

Jennifer Sanders, who has been a paramedic for 30 years, was adamant that her work is not affected by race.

“I’ve never treated anybody different — regardless,” said Sanders.

Most of the emergency responders interviewed, including Jason Dahlke, said race doesn’t affect the treatment they give. But Dahlke also said he and some of his co-workers are thinking deeply about unconscious bias.

“Historically it’s the way this country has been,” Dahlke said. “In the beginning, we had slavery and Jim Crow and redlining — and all of that stuff you can get lost in on a large, macro scale. Yeah. It’s there.”

Paramedic Jason Dahlke says he can see how unconscious bias could slip into an emergency responder’s decisions and taint health care. He’s worked hard to be aware of it, in hopes of preventing those disparities in care.(Kristian Foden-Vencil/Oregon Public Broadcasting)

Asked where he thinks unconscious bias could slip in, Dahlke talked about a patient he just treated.

The man was black and around 60 years old. Dahlke is white and in his 30s. The patient has diabetes and called 911 from home, complaining of extreme pain in his hands and feet.

When Dahlke arrived at the patient’s house, he followed standard procedure and gave the patient a blood glucose test. The results showed that the man’s blood sugar level was low.

“So it’s my decision to treat this blood sugar first. Make sure that number comes up,” Dahlke said.

He gave the patient glucose — but no pain medicine.

Dahlke said he did not address the man’s pain in this case because by the time he had stabilized the patient they had arrived at the hospital — where it was the responsibility of the emergency department staff to take over.

“When people are acutely sick or injured, pain medication is important,” Dahlke said. “But it’s not the first thing we’re going to worry about. We’re going to worry about life threats. You’re not necessarily going to die from pain, and we’re going to do what satisfies the need in the moment to get you into the ambulance and to the hospital and to a higher level of care.”

Dahlke said he is not sure whether, if the patient had been white, he would have administered pain medicine, though he doesn’t think so.

“Is it something that I think about when I come across a patient that does not look like me? I don’t know that it changes my treatment,” he said

Asked whether treatment disparities might sometimes be a result of white people being more likely to ask for more medications, Dahlke smiled.

“I wonder that — if, in this study, if we’re talking about people of color being denied or not given narcotic medicines as much as white people, then maybe we’re overtreating white people with narcotic medicines.”

Research has found African-Americans more likely to be deeply distrustful of the medical community, and that might play a role in diminished care, too. Such distrust is understandable and goes back generations, said Gregory.

“How can a person of color not disrespect a system that is constantly studying and talking about these disparities, but does nothing to fix it?” she asked.

Gregory wrote an open letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, asking it to declare racism a threat to public health.

Past declarations of crisis — such as those focusing attention on problems such as smoking or HIV — have had significant results, Gregory noted.

But the CDC told Gregory, in its emailed response, that while it supports government policies to combat racial discrimination and acknowledges the role of racism in health disparities, “racism and racial discrimination in health is a societal issue as well as a public health one, and one that requires a broad-based societal strategy to effectively dismantle racism and its negative impacts in the U.S.”

Kennel said false stereotypes about race-based differences in physiology that date to slavery also play a role in health care disparities. For example, despite a lack of any supporting science, some medical professionals still think the blood of African-Americans coagulates faster, Kennel said, citing a recent study of medical students at the University of Virginia.

Another question in the survey asked the students whether they thought African-Americans have fewer pain receptors than whites. “An uncomfortably large percentage of medical students said, ‘Yes, that’s true,’” said Kennel.

On top of that, he said, EMTs and paramedics often work in time-pressured situations, where they are limited to ambiguous clinical information and scarce resources. “In these situations, providers are much more likely to default to making decisions [based] on stereotypes,” he said.

Disparities in health care are well-documented. Whites tend to get better care and experience better outcomes, whether they’re in a doctor’s office or the ER. But before Kennel’s study, nobody knew whether the same was true in the back of an ambulance.

And they nearly didn’t get to know, because the research required ambulance companies to release highly sensitive data.

“We were prepared to maybe not look that great,” said Robert McDonald, the operations manager at American Medical Response in Portland. AMR is one of the nation’s largest ambulance organizations, and it shared its data from more than 100,000 charts with Kennel.

Some people chalk up the disparities he found to differences in demography and health insurance status, but Kennel said he controlled for those variables.

So now that AMR knows about disparities in its care, what can the company do?

“My feeling is we’re probably going to put some education and training out to our folks in the field,” McDonald said.

In addition, he said, AMR is going to hire more people of color.

“We want to see more ethnicities represented in EMS — which has historically been a white, male-dominated workforce,” McDonald said.

AMR’s policies must change, too, he added. The company has purchased software that will enable patients to read medical permission forms in any of 17 different languages. And the firm is planning an outreach effort to communities of color to explain the role of EMS workers.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Oregon Public BroadcastingNPR and Kaiser Health News.

End Of Tax Penalty Could Fall Hardest On Previously Uninsured Californians

The elimination of the Affordable Care Act tax penalty on people who don’t have health insurance could roll back recent coverage gains for Hispanics, young people, the healthy and the poor, according to a new study.

The study, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, stems from a 2017 survey in which researchers at Harvard University Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital asked more than 3,000 Californians who had bought individual health care plans: “Would you have purchased health insurance coverage this year if there was no penalty?”

Nineteen percent said they would not have, and a disproportionately large number of those were in population groups most likely to be uninsured before the law took effect.

“Especially for lower-income consumers who are potentially eligible for subsidies, it’s really important to try to understand how eliminating the penalty might affect their choices,” said Vicki Fung, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The federal penalty for not having health coverage disappeared Jan. 1, following the decision by the Republican-controlled Congress to reduce it to zero in the 2017 tax reform package. While it was in effect, the penalty potentially cost a taxpayer thousands of dollars a year — though the ACA allowed numerous exemptions from coverage based on financial hardship and other personal circumstances.

The researchers behind the Health Affairs study estimated that if the people who said they would drop insurance in the absence of a penalty had not been enrolled in a health plan, premiums would have been 4 to 7 percent higher that year. Covered California, the state’s Obamacare exchange, said last summer that the elimination of the penalty added nearly 4 percentage points to its average 2019 premium.

The study concluded that other states could be harder hit than California by the elimination of the penalty. Premium increases of the magnitude they estimated for the Golden State are unlikely to destabilize its individual insurance market, they said.

Covered California has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting its health plans to consumers — more than the federal government spends for the 39 states that use the federal healthcare.gov exchange.

Still, the loss of coverage caused by ending the tax penalty could fall heavily on many Californians, the study suggests.

About 31 percent of Hispanics responding to the survey said they would not buy health insurance if it were not required, compared with 13 percent of whites, Fung said. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

About 22 percent of people without chronic conditions said they would not have bought insurance if there were no penalty, compared with 12 percent of those with two or more chronic illnesses, according to the study. And more than twice as many men aged 18 to 30 said they would have dropped coverage than among those 51 and older.

The percentage of health plan enrollees who said they would skip coverage in the absence of the penalty was also higher among those with lower income and education levels.

The study’s findings largely echo what other policy analysts have found. But most of their studies have involved statistical models, rather than direct surveys of consumers, Fung said.

A University of California-Berkeley study released in November projected that between 150,000 and 450,000 fewer Californians would enroll in coverage in 2020 without the penalty. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that repealing the penalty would induce 4 million people nationally to forgo coverage this year, and 13 million in 2027.

About 1.3 million Californians bought health insurance through Covered California in 2018. A vast majority of them qualified for federal tax credits that lower their premiums, and about 44 percent also got subsidies to reduce what they pay out-of-pocket when they seek care.

The Health Affairs study “really underscores the need for state policies to protect the gains we’ve made and to continue progress toward universal coverage, such as state-level individual mandates and subsidies to buy coverage,” said Laurel Lucia, director of the health care program at the UC-Berkeley Labor Center and one of the authors of the UC-Berkeley study.

Legislative proposals last year to create state-based financial aid for purchasing insurance failed, but their proponents have renewed hope for some of their ideas under California’s new Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.


This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

After Bitter Closure, Rural Texas Hospital Defies The Norm And Reopens

Five months ago, the 6,500 residents of Crockett, Texas, witnessed a bit of a resurrection — at least in rural hospital terms.

A little more than a year after the local hospital shut its doors, the 25-bed facility reopened its emergency department, inpatient beds and some related services, albeit on a smaller scale.

Without a hospital, residents of Crockett, located 120 miles north of Houston, were 35 miles away along rural roads from the next closest hospital when a medical crisis struck, said Dr. Bob Grier, board president of the Houston County Hospital District, which is the county’s governmental authority that oversees Crockett, a public hospital. “Someone falls off the roof. A heart attack. A stroke. A diabetic coma. Start naming these rather serious things and health care is known for its golden hour,” he said.

The late-July reopening of the newly named Crockett Medical Center makes it a bit of a unicorn in a state that has led nationally in rural hospital closures. Since January 2010, 17 of the 94 shuttered hospitals have been in Texas, including two that closed in December, according to data from the University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

But Crockett’s story also reflects some of the challenges faced by rural hospitals everywhere. Board members frequently have limited background in health care management and yet are responsible for making financial decisions. Add to that mix a Lone Star State resistance to raising local property taxes. An effort to increase the county’s 15 cents per $100 property valuation for the hospital district has been defeated twice since the hospital closed.

And a small rural hospital like Crockett’s has “no leverage” when negotiating reimbursement rates with insurers, Grier repeatedly points out.

The tough reality is that too many rural hospitals in Texas and elsewhere, when negotiating with insurers and other financial players, “are almost always negotiating from weakness and sometimes from literally leaning out over the edge of the [survival] cliff,” agreed Dr. Nancy Dickey, executive director of the A&M Rural and Community Health Institute at Texas A&M Health Science Center.

Rural communities must think more creatively about how to meet at least some of their health needs without a traditional hospital, whether it’s forming partnerships with nearby towns or expanding telemedicine, Dickey said. “There is little doubt in my mind that many of these communities are going to see their hospitals close,” she said, “and are not going to be able to make an economic case to reopen them.”

The A&M institute, which in December published a report looking at these challenges for three Texas communities, recently landed a $4 million, five-year federal grant to help rural hospitals nationwide keep their doors open or find other ways to maintain local health care.

Demographics And Decisions

The financial headwinds have been particularly fierce in Texas, one of 14 states that has not expanded Medicaid eligibility after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. “That makes a huge difference,” said John Henderson, chief executive officer of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, known in Texas rural circles as TORCH. “But that doesn’t change the reality that we aren’t going to do it.”

Leading up to the state’s biennial legislative session, which begins in January, rural leaders are making the case that state legislators need to take steps to bolster the state’s 161 rural hospitals, starting with rectifying underpayments for Medicaid patients. As the state’s program has transitioned to managed care, over time reimbursements have shrunk to the point that rural hospitals are losing as much as $60 million annually, according to TORCH officials, who cite state data.

They also support a congressional bill, HR 5678, that would make it easier for rural hospitals to close their inpatient beds but retain some services, such as an emergency room and primary care clinic. Under current federal regulations, facilities that make such a move are no longer considered a hospital and can’t be reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid at hospital rates, which are often higher than payments to clinics or individual doctors. Those lower rates make it harder for stripped-down facilities to keep up their operations, said Don McBeath, TORCH’s director of government relations.

Crockett’s hospital, then called Timberlands Healthcare, abruptly shut down in summer 2017 after just a few weeks’ notice from its management company, Texas-based Little River Healthcare. Little River, which was also the subject of an analysis by Modern Healthcare that showed several of its hospitals engaged in unusually high laboratory billing for out-of-state patients, has since filed for bankruptcy. Two other rural hospitals affiliated with Little River closed their doors in December

As it struggled to stay open, Crockett’s hospital had been treating a population that was increasingly poor and aging, according to Texas A&M’s report. The researchers describe in the report — Crockett is “community 1” among three communities featured — that the hospital was overstaffed with more than 200 employees given its daily average census of three hospitalized patients. Also, they wrote, board members should have more closely questioned the management company. The board said they were given data at each meeting, “but that data did not suggest the imminent demise of the hospital,” the report’s authors wrote.

Fighting The Closure Tide

Leaders in Crockett tried to capture the interest of other hospital systems to reopen and manage the facility, without success, Grier said. Along with staffers losing their jobs, the community knew it would be more difficult to persuade people to relocate or retire to the area without a hospital nearby, he said.

Every weekday at noon for weeks on end, a small group of two to 20 people gathered beneath the hospital’s front portico to pray for some avenue to reopen, Grier said. Then, as the odds looked increasingly long, they got a call out of the blue from two Austin-based doctors. “I feel God was involved,” Grier said. “They have told us that they were looking for some kind of a larger investment.”

Those initial conversations resulted in a five-year lease arrangement between the hospital district and the management company, operating as Crockett Medical Center LLC.

The two physicians, Dr. Kelly Tjelmeland and Dr. Subir Chhikara, are listed on Crockett Medical Center’s website as chairman and president, respectively. They failed to respond to requests for comment about their plans for the hospital. But in a presentation to the board before the lease was signed, they said that one of their goals was to get the facility classified as a critical access hospital, which enables a higher reimbursement for Medicare patients.

Along with operating a primary care clinic and 24/7 emergency room, Crockett Medical Center staffs a handful of hospital beds for patients who need more limited medical treatment, such as heart monitoring or intravenous antibiotics, Grier said. But when the Crockett hospital reopened, it didn’t resume delivering babies. Only 66 of Texas rural hospitals still provide obstetrics services, according to McBeath.

Eliminating baby deliveries was one possibility on the table at another rural hospital if that hospital CEO hadn’t pulled off the sort of Texas miracle that Crockett has yet to achieve — persuading local voters to support a tax increase. Adam Willmann, CEO of 25-bed Goodall-Witcher Hospital Authority, northwest of Waco, said that he and others made the case in dozens of meetings that a hospital property tax was needed to support the financially struggling hospital.

In November, 58 percent of the county’s voters backed the new tax, despite the community’s political leanings. During that same election, 80 percent voted to re-elect Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

“They want to be 5 minutes, 15 minutes from an ER and not 35 miles down the road,” Willmann said, referring to the nearest hospitals in Waco. “And they’re willing to pay a little more for it.”