Gov. Whitmer orders implicit bias training for health professionals to combat racial inequalities


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical officer. - GOVERNOR'S OFFICE
  • Governor's office
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical officer.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is requiring implicit bias training for health professionals as part of an ongoing effort to combat the coronavirus’ disparate impact on people of color.

The directive, issued Thursday, was recommended by the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which Whitmer created in April after a disproportionate number of Black people were infected by COVID-19 or died of the virus. Health professionals must take the training to obtain or renew their licenses.

Black people make up 13.6% of the state’s population, but represent 40% of its coronavirus deaths. Of those with confirmed infections, 30% are Black.

“We must do everything we can to address this disparity,” Whitmer says in a news release. “The evidence shows that training in implicit bias can make a positive difference, so today we are taking action to help improve racial equity across Michigan's health care system. That’s why my staff has begun this kind of training and every member of my team, including me, will complete this type of training on an annual basis.” 

Psychologists describe implicit bias as a deep-seated but unconscious bias that influences people's attitudes.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is Black, said he personally knows 23 people who died from the coronavirus.

“We must act now because more and more lives are still being lost,” Gilchrist said during a news conference Thursday. “We have an opportunity to make Michigan a national leader in addressing health disparities.”

Public health officials say Black people have higher coronavirus mortality rates because of disparities in the health care system. Generations of racist housing and economic inequality have trapped many Black people in impoverished neighborhoods without adequate resources. In Detroit, where more than a third of its population is impoverished and many are uninsured or underinsured, residents are far more likely to have pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity.

Health officials also say the infection rates are higher because contagious diseases often spread faster in lower-income areas because many people rely on public transit, live in close quarters, and have jobs without paid sick days. A disproportionate number of lower-income residents also work in the service industry, where employees are in close contact with the public and can’t work from home.

“By providing awareness to health care workers on how to recognize and mitigate implicit bias, we can help them carry out their mission of providing the best health care to every patient they serve,” Gilchrist says.  

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive, said the training is critical to closing the racial gaps in health care.

“The fact is that implicit bias exists, and studies show that it can have an impact on health outcomes,” Khaldun says in a news release. “Every healthcare professional should be trained in implicit bias so that we can make sure everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, has access to the highest quality care.”

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans applauded the governor's directive.

"This is an important first step in addressing the health disparities along racial and economic lines laid bare during this pandemic," Evans says in a written statement. "Here in Wayne County, we have made continued testing and increasing access to care, especially for under served residents such as our communities of color, a top priority in our response to this crisis."

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