Why Hospital's Response to Dr Moore's Death Doesn't Cut It

Yamicia D. Connor, MD, PhD


February 19, 2021

Yamicia D. Connor, MD, PhD

My husband walked into our bedroom. It was around 9 AM and I was treating myself to a lazy morning. His smile faded when he saw his pregnant wife in tears. I handed him my phone.

On the screen was an official statement from Dennis M. Murphy, the president and CEO of Indiana University (IU) Health System, regarding the death of Dr Susan Moore from COVID-19. During her hospitalization, Moore posted a video on Facebook detailing concerns that her COVID-19 treatment was compromised due to racial bias.

My husband searched my face. Was I upset about Moore's mistreatment and subsequent death? Yes. But it wasn't just her story that drove me to tears; it was the tone-deaf response from IU.

Medical Racism

Racial injustice pervades our healthcare system.

Despite her years of medical training, Moore still fell victim to medical racism during her hospitalization. Her requests for pain medications were met with suspicion and imputations of drug abuse. It was not until she underwent a CT scan validating her pain that she received medication to control it.

The circumstances of Moore's death have been a topic of conversation circulating within the Black physician community, renewing debates about health inequity and the role that racism plays in the health outcomes of Black patients.

I am a Commonwealth Fellow in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and founder of Race to Better Health, an interprofessional organization focused on reducing health inequities. Medical racism is on my mind every day.

Victim Blaming

Criticism is an opportunity for reflection and growth. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from IU Hospital's shortcomings, Murphy projects blame onto Moore for her own death. He suggested that Moore may have "intimidated" her care team as "a knowledgeable patient who was using social media to voice her concerns."

When I read that, I felt nauseated. Intimidation is a weapon commonly used against professional women, especially Black women. Using this trope to describe a deceased patient was at best careless and at worst cruel.

As a Black woman, I cannot describe the lengths I go to to seem less threatening. I have reflexively increased the pitch of my voice and learned to smile more. I often wear bright-colored lipstick and count the number of times I challenge a person in a single meeting. Yet people still think I am too assertive.

Moore shared her truth but Murphy discredits her. The fear that this will happen if we complain keeps many of us suffering in silence. We fear that using social media — a powerful instrument of the oppressed — might compromise the quality of our care. We fear that our assertion that "Black Lives Matter" will somehow be misconstrued as a claim that not all lives matter, and that our bravery will be conflated with playing the race card. This was a missed opportunity for IU to reaffirm its commitment to health equity.

As CEO, Murphy's job is to advocate for the staff at IU, but it should not be done at the expense of patients. A knowledgeable patient is still a vulnerable one. Fear of criticism is not a good way to practice medicine. No matter how intimidated you may feel, once you walk into the room, your self-doubt must be left at the door. That is the only way we can provide the best possible care for our patients.

That is our duty. That is our burden.

Need for Change

In the hospital, Moore was not a physician, but a patient. Patients must be able to challenge the system without fear of reproach. I choose to believe the closing part of Murphy's statement — that Moore's words will stay with him and motivate further change. However, I hope he reflects on the damage his own words have done to the community he was trying to reach.

I believe in the goodness of the medical community. I base my work on the premise that if White healthcare professionals truly understood the Black perspective, we as a society could move toward more equitable population health.

Murphy and others in similar positions of power and privilege, please realize that it brings us no joy to "play the race card." It is painful and leaves us vulnerable. I hope your vow to promote racial justice is sincere and that when you reflect on Moore, you focus on her bravery and how her case represents the suffering of so many. Then, you and your staff may learn to provide the equitable and compassionate care that we all strive to deliver.

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