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Common Ground Health report reveals racism at center of public health crisis

Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, presents The Color of Health report.
Racquel Stephen
Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, presents The Color of Health report.

Black people in the Finger Lakes region face stark health disparities as a result of racism and the way it manifests, a problem magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released Friday by Common Ground Health.

The report, “The Color of Health: The Devastating Toll of Racism on Black Lives,” is a 50-page analysis that connects the dots between higher early mortality rates for African Americans in Rochester and the Finger Lakes and the socioeconomic restrictions they encounter. 

According to the report, compared to their white counterparts, African Americans in the Finger Lakes experience higher rates of heart disease (133% higher), diabetes (146%), cancer (35%), and premature birth disorders (218%).

Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, said health equity extends beyond the walls of medical institutions.

“To improve health for Black residents, we need to address what happens in classrooms, on the way to school, on the job and in the home,” Norwood said. 

He said good public health includes policies and practices that ensure African Americans have fair access to employment, education, housing and other social determinants. The inequity in these systemic structures also leads to poor mental health.

The report shows that 1 in 3 Black residents who make less than $25,000 annually reported poor or fair mental health.

“Structural racism is literally stealing the breath from the Black community,” Norwood said.

The report also recommends ways to dismantle racism in health care systems, such as advocating for racial equity in everyday actions and conversations, and promoting business practices and policies that leave room for Black physicians and health care professionals.

Dr. Linda Clark, Common Ground’s chief medical officer, said one initiative is to create pipeline programs to ensure the fostering of more Black health care workers. Research shows that patients experience better outcomes with their health if they have access to doctors who look like them. 

“As one of the few Black doctors in our community, I am painfully aware of the need to inspire, recruit, train, and retain more health care professionals of color in our community,” Clark said.

Norwood said a successful implementation of this report requires community partnerships and frequent presentations.

“This is going to be a challenging body of work for us to do," he said. "But it is the right work to do. And it is the necessary work to do.” 

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.