Monday, January 17, 2022

Difficult Conversations About Racism

by Christian Sinclair (@ctsinclair)

There are many difficult situations we encounter in palliative care and hospice. Our training and experience equip us with words and skills to explore emotion-inducing topics. Yet there are still moments many clinicians can be caught speechless, and one of those is when we encounter racist language in the midst of our work.

If I had to pick the most influential article in 2021, it would be "Power, Silence, and Debriefing: Hidden Harms When Palliative Teams Encounter Racism" by Rev. Florence Moss and Dr. Kate McKillip, published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management in June 2021. I have shared it numerous times with colleagues and trainees, so much so, "Moss McKillip" regularly autofills on my search engine.

I was reminded of the power of this article with Rev Moss and Dr. McKillip presented for Friday Chalk Talk* led by Dr. Martin Bazelak this past week. If you are looking for speakers for your next Grand Rounds, I would put these two on your 2022 short list.

The article is a case based format, stemming from a real consult in which a patient used a racial slur, and there was no response in the moment. What follows is a very open portrayal of the debrief, which touches on the harm caused and the missed opportunities for responding in a way which supports the anti-racist work we should be supporting in health care. I am so appreciative of the thoughtful and honest writing by the authors. It was difficult for me to read the first few times, because I would frequently reflect on missed opportunities I have had in my career. It hurts to reflect on moments you could reduce harm to others, but you didn't. This is an important step, and it gets easier to read, because you can focus on the framework McKillip and Moss give to make better choices in the future.

One critical point is our communication tools of empathic silence and immediate debrief are not enough to handle these situations. McKillip and Moss let us in on their inner thoughts as they work through this case. They did a lot of work together to make things better for their own future work alone and together. They could have kept this work private, but they transformed it into something that could have a much larger impact in the world. I am so appreciative. I have already put some of their work into practice.

This article differs from other important work like the 2016 NEJM article Paul-Emelie, Smith, Lo and Fernández, "Dealing with Racist Patients." Most articles focus on what to do about the care of the patient now and in the future if they ask to be reassigned. That is important to consider as well, but what I appreciate about McKillip and Moss' work is that it focuses on the team, and the role we all must have in working towards a more caring and supportive community at work.

COI: Peer-to-peer mentorship - Mckillip, Bazelak

*Friday Chalk Talk is a great weekly resource. I need to write about that too!

For more Pallimed posts about race and healthcare.
For more Pallimed posts about ethics.
For more Pallimed posts by Dr. Sinclair click here.



Christian Sinclair, MD, FAAHPM is palliative care physician working in outpatient clincs at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, KS. He currently is inspired to learn more about low-car transportation planning in cities like Berlin.

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