#WhiteCoats4BlackLives: A 'Platform for Good'

Alicia Ault

June 05, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Participants in the growing #WhiteCoats4BlackLives protest against racism say it is a chance to use their status as trusted messengers, show themselves as allies of people of color, and demonstrate that they are intimately familiar with how racism has contributed to health disparities, like those on vivid display during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sporadic protests — with participants in scrubs or white coats kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd — have quickly grown into organized, ongoing, large-scale events at hospitals, medical campuses, and city centers in New York, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Austin, Houston, Boston, Miami, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Albuquerque, among others.

Dr Danielle Verghese kneeling at a White Coats protest held in Philadelphia on Sunday, May 31.

The group WhiteCoats4BlackLives began with a "die-in" protest in 2014, and the medical student–run organization continues to organize, with a large number of protests scheduled to occur simultaneously on June 5 at 1:00 PM Eastern Time.

"It's important to use our platform for good," said Danielle Verghese, MD, a first-year internal medicine resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, who helped recruit a small group of students, residents, and pharmacy school students to take part in a kneel-in on May 31 in the city's Washington Square Park.

"As a doctor, most people in society regard me with a certain amount of respect and may listen if I say something," Verghese told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Crystal Nnenne Azu

Crystal Nnenne Azu, MD, a third-year internal medicine resident at Indiana University, who has long worked on increasing diversity in medicine, said she helped organize a march and kneel-in at the school's Eskenazi Hospital campus on June 3 to educate and show support.

Some 500 to 1000 healthcare providers in scrubs and white coats turned out, tweeted one observer.

https://twitter.com/DomenicaReports/status/1268315775242080256

"Racism is a public health crisis," Azu told Medscape Medical News. "This COVID epidemic has definitely raised that awareness even more for many of our colleagues."

Disproportionate death rates in blacks and Latinos are "not just related to individual choices but also systemic racism," she said.

The march also called out police brutality and the "angst" that many people feel about it, said Azu. "People want an avenue to express their discomfort, to raise awareness, and also show their solidarity and support for peaceful protests," she said.

A June 4 protest and "die-in" — held to honor black and indigenous lives at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences campus in Albuquerque ― was personal for Jaron Kee, MD, a first-year family medicine resident. He was raised on the Navajo reservation in Crystal, New Mexico, and has watched COVID-19 devastate the tribe, adding insult to years of health disparities, police brutality, and neglect of thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women, he said.

Participating is a means of reassuring the community that "we're allies and that their suffering and their livelihood is something that we don't underrecognize," Kee told Medscape Medical News. These values spurred him to enter medicine, he said.

Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who also attended the "die-in," said she hopes that peers, in particular people of color, see that they have allies at work "who are committed to being anti-racist."

It's also "a statement to the community at large that physicians and other healthcare workers strive to be anti-racist and do our best to support our African American and indigenous peers, students, patients, and community members," she told Medscape Medical News.

Now Is Different

Some residents said they felt particularly moved to act now — as the country entered a second week of protests in response to George Floyd's death and as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the devastating toll of health disparities.

"This protest feels different to me," said Ian Fields, MD, a urogynecology fellow at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) School of Medicine. "The events over the last couple of weeks were just a big catalyst for this to explode," he told Medscape Medical News.

"I was very intent, as a white male physician, just coming to acknowledge the privilege that I have, and to do something," Fields said, adding that as an obstetrician-gynecologist, he sees the results of health disparities daily. He took part in a kneel-in and demonstration with OHSU colleagues on June 2 at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square.

It's okay to be sad and mourn, Fields said, but, he added, "Nobody needs our tears necessarily right now. They need us to show up and to speak up about what we see going on."

They need us to show up and to speak up about what we see going on. Dr Ian Fields

"It feels like it's a national conversation," said Verghese. The White Coats movement is "not an issue that's confined to the black community ― this is not an issue that's a 'black thing' ― this is a humanitarian thing," she said.

Verghese, an Indian-American who said that no one would mistake her for being white, said she still wants to acknowledge that she has privilege, as well as biases. All the patients in the COVID-19 unit where she works are African American, but she said she hadn't initially noticed.

"What's shocking is that I didn't think about it," she said. "I do have to recognize my own biases."

Protesting During a Pandemic

Despite the demands of treating COVID-19 patients, healthcare professionals have made the White Coat protests a priority, they said. Most — but not all — of the White Coats protests have been on medical campuses, allowing healthcare professionals to quickly assemble and get back to work. Plus, all of the protests have called on attendees to march and gather safely — with masks and distancing.

"Seeing that we are working in the hospital, it's important for us to be wearing our masks, to be social distancing," Azu said. Organizers asked attendees to ensure that they protested in a way that kept them "from worsening the COVID epidemic," said Azu.

Unlike many others, the first protest in Portland was in conjunction with a larger group that assembles every evening in the square, said Fields. The physician protesters were wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other, especially when they kneeled, he said.

The protests have provided an escape from the futility of not being able to do anything for COVID-19 patients except to provide support, said Verghese. "In so many ways, we find ourselves powerless," she said.

Protesting, Verghese added, was "one tiny moment where I got to regain my sense of agency, that I could actually do something about this."

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