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Police and Surgeons Have This in Common: Both More Likely to Kill Black Men Than White Men, Professor Says

surgery, amputation, medical prcedure, doctors in surgical masks, operationWhile it’s a well-established problem that too many Black men in the U.S. die every year at the hands of law enforcement, surgeons in the U.S. are also killing too many Black men — but thus far have largely escaped closer scrutiny, according to an analysis in The Washington Post on Tuesday by a public health expert from Emory University.

Victoria Phillips, an associate professor at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, writes that while approximately 96 Black men die each year in police homicides, about 95 Black men undergoing heart bypass die each year — after taking account of other factors affecting surgical survival.

“We seldom think of medicine and law enforcement as professions with parallels,” Phillips writes. “While many exist — both are predominantly white, male and fiercely loyal to their own — the most remarkable attribute they share is a unique brand of public trust that provides them license to cause harm: one with weapons, the other with scalpels … In spite of the numbers, the public focuses laser-like on the former and pays minimal attention to the latter.”

Phillips describes how the medical profession has used a complex process called risk adjustment to determine the patient-specific factors that are most likely to lead to death, such as insurance coverage, presence of other diseases, smoking status, weight, age and income. As a result of this process, fatalities connected to bypass surgery have been reduced by 33 percent over the past decade for white men. For Black men? The decline has been just 3 percent.

According to Phillips, the mortality rate from bypass surgery for Black men is 11 percent higher than that for white men of similar health status.

But the medical profession is reluctant to look more closely at the surgeons themselves, perhaps because of concern about malpractice. Phillips also suggests that the reluctance to study the issue is because surgeons, like the police, mostly police themselves.
“These factors must be overcome,” she writes. “Identifying whether physician and hospital features play a role in generating the racially disparate bypass outcomes is a step on the road to eliminating them.”
Phillips points out that the reporting process for police and homicides is so spotty and fraught with holes that the public “rightly views them with extreme skepticism.”

“Reporting is voluntary, and fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies currently send information,” she writes. “No standard definition for justifiable exists, nor is there clear guidance on what party makes the justifiable determination. ‘Unjustifiable’ deaths aren’t even included. In our high-tech world, this state of affairs is inexcusable.”

“The goal for both professions should be twofold,” Phillips concludes. “The first is to minimize death counts. The second is to investigate existing and perceived racial disparities. These may be a function of racism, but are likely a far more complex phenomenon, a proposition that should be entertained equally in medicine and law enforcement.”


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