CHA leads, members drive effort to end racism and health disparities

February Online


Feb. 5, 2021

Clinicians with CommonSpirit Health take part in a White Coats for Black Lives rally in June calling for an end to racism and health disparities.

A membership-driven initiative being led by CHA is addressing systemic racism and its effects, both within Catholic health care and throughout the communities that Catholic health ministries serve, by taking steps to end health and social disparities. The effort includes ensuring that testing and treatments for COVID-19 are available and accessible in minority communities and advocating for better schools, safe housing, economic opportunity and criminal justice reform.

The initiative, Confronting Racism by Achieving Health Equity, was rolled out to the public on Thursday with the pledged support of 23 of the nation's largest Catholic health care systems. The systems together employ nearly a half million people across 46 states and the District of Columbia and care for almost four million patients annually.

Clockwise from top left, Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer; Lloyd H. Dean, chief executive officer of CommonSpirit Health; Ernie Sadau, president and chief executive officer of CHRISTUS Health; and Dr. Tamarah Duperval-Brownlee, senior vice president and chief community impact officer with Ascension, announce the launch of the Confronting Racism by Achieving Health Equity initiative during a virtual media briefing on Thursday, Feb. 4.

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, said during a press briefing announcing the initiative that Catholic health ministries' efforts to end racism go back to their founding by congregations of women religious who cared for the poor and vulnerable. Those congregations led efforts to integrate care for patients of color in the last century and lent their voices on behalf of justice during the civil rights movement, she said.

"But over the past year, we have been confronted with the fact that any strides that have been made against racism have simply not been enough," Sr. Mary said. "COVID-19 and the police killings of George Floyd and others impel the Catholic health ministry to address the devastating impact that racism has on the health and well-being of individuals and communities."

'Seize this moment'
Lloyd H. Dean, chief executive officer of CommonSpirit Health, said Catholic health care providers see systemic racism as a threat that impacts their ability to improve the health of the communities they serve. He pointed, for example, to statistics that show Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are almost four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID and almost three times more likely to die of the virus than white Americans.

He said that while efforts have been made in the past to address racial disparities in health outcomes, they have failed because they have been episodic. Catholic health care systems comprise the largest sector in nonprofit health care in the U.S. Collectively Catholic systems can make strides against racism and join with others who share their vision for strong equitable health and mental health care. Now is the time, he said emphatically.

"Shame on us if we do not seize this moment as a nation and as a society to make measurable, demonstrable and systemic changes," Dean said.

The initiative has four focus areas for Catholic health systems. The first is to commit to ensuring that testing for COVID-19 is available and accessible in minority communities and that new treatments are distributed and used equitably as they become available. Members also pledge to work to prioritize vaccinations for those at higher risk — seniors and communities of color, including Native American communities.

Dean said one way that CommonSpirit Health is working long term to address health inequities is by partnering with the Morehouse School of Medicine in a 10-year, $100 million initiative to develop and train more culturally competent providers and doctors of color. Receiving care from a physician of the same culture builds the trust of patients and can lead to better health management and health outcomes, he said. Morehouse is one of only four medical schools at historically Black colleges.

Change from within
The second focus area is enacting change across health systems. Catholic health systems are examining how their organizations recruit, hire, promote and retain employees; how they conduct business operations, including visible diversity and inclusivity at the decision, leadership and governance levels; and how they incentivize and hold leaders accountable.

Ernie Sadau, president and chief executive officer of CHRISTUS Health, said his system sees "visible diversity and inclusion" as critical. He noted that the system's board makeup is 45% minority and 40% women. In Mexico, a CHRISTUS Health leadership program increased the percentage of female executives to 45% from 10% in just a few years.

"We have evidence that our work is changing things for our associates, for our patients, for our communities that we serve," Sadau said. "CHRISTUS is changing from the inside out and we're proof that change is possible."

The third focus area is advocating for improved health outcomes for minority communities and populations. Members will promote and improve the delivery of culturally competent care and oppose policies that exacerbate or perpetuate economic and social inequities, including such issues as education, housing and criminal justice reform.

Building trust
The fourth leg of the pledge is to strengthen trust with minority communities. Members vow to foster, strengthen and sustain authentic relationships based on mutually agreed goals to better understand the unique needs of their communities.

Dr. Tamarah Duperval-Brownlee, senior vice president and chief community impact officer with Ascension, said her system is keenly aware that trust, honesty and transparency are keys to giving communities the best possible care.

"Our Catholic ministry is called to take an active and intentional role to improve care and address what matters most to those we serve in many ways," Duperval-Brownlee said.

She said Ascension is building trust within the communities it serves in several ways, including by tracking health disparities, addressing and removing socioeconomic barriers to better health, ensuring representation of those communities in health care teams, investing in sustainable structures and resources to ensure that health care advances are available equitably and don't compound disparities, and by applying "cultural humility" so as to listen better and understand issues affecting the health and well-being of people who've been marginalized.

Accountability and commitment
Sr. Mary said the initiative will produce measurable outcomes. "We will be putting measures in place that will be able to track the progress, not only to hold ourselves accountable but also to look at ways that we can continue to improve," she said.

She and other speakers at the briefing said they hope the initiative sparks a wider effort across the nation's health care system and beyond to address racism and the disparities it causes.

In offering inspiration for the effort, Sr. Mary cited a quote from Pope Francis: "We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life."

More information about this initiative can be found at


Confronting racism as a ministry

The 23 Catholic health care organizations that have signed the pledge are:


Avera Health


Bon Secours Mercy Health


CommonSpirit Health

Covenant Health

Elizabeth Seton Children's Center

Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System

Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries

Holy Redeemer Health System

Hospital Sisters Health System


Mercy Health Services


Peace Care St. Ann's


Providence St. Joseph Health

SCL Health

Sisters of Charity Health System

SMP Health System

SSM Health

Trinity Health



Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.