AURORA | As the nation wrestles with ongoing police shootings of Black people and a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic patients, a new group at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is working to make the campus more equitable for Black students.
CU Anschutz’s Black Student Collective was formed in June in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other Black people whose deaths have sparked nationwide protests. Candace Cephers, co-chairperson of the organization, said the group originated off of White Coats for Black Lives, a national organization of medical students campaigning to dismantle racism in the medical field.
“We all just came together because community was crucial for us at this time,” said Co-chairperson Oluwatosin Adebiyi, who noted that in her graduating class of 186, there are only 11 Black students, less than 6%.
Despite being in Aurora, one of Colorado’s most diverse cities, Anchutz’s student body is largely white. According to data from the University of Colorado’s diversity report, in the fall of 2019 only 3.2% of Anschutz students were Black, while over 70% were white.
Cephers and Adebiyi worked with about 40 other Black students on campus, mostly in the School of Medicine, to create a formal document outlining concrete changes they wanted the school to make.
Ultimately, they drafted a resolution with 25 action items for reducing racial injustice and a multi-year plan for implementing them. The action items include evaluating the school’s curricula for racial bias, recruiting more students of color and making the campus police’s use of force policies more transparent and restrictive.
“Angela Davis said, ‘in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist,’ and I think in medicine we have a long history that is tainted with supporting racist agendas,” Adebiyi said.
Racist norms have been part of the medical establishment for too long, she said.
“As the medical profession we pride ourselves on being objective, and being data driven, and in the same light we have all these years of reckoning around racism,” she said.
Along with changes on campus, the collective is also hoping to increase equity in the medical field in terms of how patients of color and immigrant patients are treated. They’ve already had some success on that front.
Cephers said that in response to the collective’s advocacy, Denver Health has decided to stop reporting estimated glomerular filtration rates (eGFR) corrected for race. eGFR is used to calculate kidney function for people with kidney disease, and historically a separate, higher rate has been calculated for Black patients.
“The eGFR race-adjusted algorithm could guide decisions in ways that may direct more attention or resources to white patients than to members of racial and ethnic minorities,” a Denver Health email shared with the Sentinel announcing the new policy said. “There is no substantiated data indicating that creatinine-based equations are influenced by race.”
“We were really excited about that,” Cephers said of the change.
Cephers and Adebiyi both said that more transparency is one of their highest priorities for the university, as that will let students know what the school is doing and help the administration hold itself accountable.
“There have been things that our administration has done but as a student I didn’t know all those details,” Adebiyi said.
The group met with the school’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion while they were formalizing the resolution, and met with Chancellor Don Elliman to discuss the changes they wanted to see.
So far, the administration has been very receptive, Cephers said.
Elliman said he appreciated the collective for reaching out to the administration, and supports their efforts to make the school more equitable.
“We view it as part of our mission to help begin to build a workforce that culturally represents the communities that we serve,” he said.
The administration is reviewing the resolution point-by-point to see how requests can be implemented on campus, and is working to apply them to the other schools besides the School of Medicine, Elliman said.
“The list of things they requested was quite long, appropriately I think, and there were a number of points that we’ve made some progress on,” he said. “Really nothing they asked us to look at I thought was unreasonable or unachievable.”
He said that the school had already been in the process of reviewing some of its curricula, and had made sure that its police department is in compliance with the requirements created by Colorado’s new police reform bill. The school has also created its own office of diversity, equity and inclusion after previously sharing the office with CU Denver, and the office will be reaching out to minority groups to work with them on areas they think need progress, he said.
“That’s going to give us the foundation to really create a priority list and begin to attack it,” he said.
Disproportionate COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates for Black and Hispanic people have opened many people’s eyes to racial disparities in health. According to data from the CDC, Black people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 at a rate 4.7 times that of white people, and have died at 2.1 times the rate.
However, racial disparities in health care were already a major issue before COVID-19, and will continue after the pandemic has subsided.
“I think the COVID pandemic has shined a bright light through the gaps that were already evident, but this time those gaps became gaping holes,” Adebiyi said.
In a sobering opinion piece published last month, The New York Times cited a study that found that even if Black people were immune to the coronavirus, they would still likely have a higher mortality rate than white people in 2020.
“Quite frankly these issues are here now, were here before, and will continue to exist if we do nothing,” Adebiyi said. “Because of that, we must approach this as we would any other serious matter; we have to make sure it’s continuous and sustained.”