KFF Health News' 'What The Health?': 3 health policy experts you should know

In this special episode, host Julie Rovner, KFF Health News' chief Washington correspondent, interviews three noted health policy experts.

Amy Finkelstein is a health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of "We've Got You Covered: Rebooting American Health Care," which posits a new approach to universal health insurance. Sylvia Morris is a physician and one of the co-authors of "The Game Plan: A Woman's Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine," in which five former medical school classmates share things they wish they had known earlier about how to thrive in what is still a male-dominated profession. And Michael LeNoir is a pediatrician, allergist, former broadcaster, and health educator in the San Francisco Bay Area who founded the African American Wellness Project, aimed at helping historically underserved African American patients better participate in their own care.

[Editor's note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to "What the Health?" I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News. Normally I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. But today we have a very special episode. Rather than our usual news wrap, we have three separate interviews I did earlier this month with three very interesting guests: author and health economist Amy Finkelstein, author and physician Sylvia Morris, and physician and medical educator Michael LeNoir. So let’s get right to it.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Amy Finkelstein, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted health policy wonk, and one of my favorite people in health care. She’s got a new book, just out, called "We’ve Got You Covered: Rebooting American Health Care." Amy Finkelstein, welcome to "What the Health?"

Amy Finkelstein: Thanks so much for having me on, Julie.

Rovner: So it’s been a minute since large-scale health system reform was on the national agenda — I think, even in the research community — which is in some ways odd because I don’t think there’s ever been as much unanimity that the health system is completely dysfunctional as there is right now. But I’m starting to see inklings of ideas bubbling up. I interviewed Kate Baicker, your former partner in research, a couple of months ago, and I don’t know if you saw it, but there’s a new Republican health reform plan just out from the Hoover Institution. Why is now the time to start talking about this again?

Finkelstein: I mean, I think the right question is why haven’t we been talking about it all along? I think it’s, unfortunately, always timely to talk about how to fix the incredibly rooted rot in our health care quote-unquote "system."

Rovner: Why has it been so hard to reach any consensus about how health insurance should work? We don’t … I mean, we’re at a point even in the United States where we don’t all agree that everyone should have health insurance.

Finkelstein: So it’s a really good question. I think my co-author, Liran Einav, who’s my long-term collaborator, and I came to realize in writing this book is that we weren’t getting the right answers and consensus on them because we weren’t asking the right questions, both as researchers and in the public policy discourse. There’s a lot of discussion of "What do you think of single-payer?" or "Should we have a public option?" or "What about health savings accounts?" But what we came to realize, and it’s kind of idiotically obvious once we say it, but it still unfortunately bears saying: You can’t talk about the solution until you agree on what is the goal. What are we trying to do in health policy and health policy reform? And there are, of course, many admirable reasons to want health policy reform, or government intervention, more generally, in health policy. You can think, and this is what we’ve worked on for many years, that, you know, Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" doesn’t work that well in medical marketplace. You can be interested in making sure that we try to improve population health. You can think that health care is a human right. There are many possible reasons. What we came to realize in working on this book, and what then provided startling clarity and, hopefully, ultimately consensus on the solution, is that while all of these may be admirable goals, none of them are actually the problem that we have been trying but failing to solve with our health policy for the last 70-plus years. What becomes startlingly clear when you look at our history — and it’s the same in other countries as well, they’ve just succeeded more than we have — is that there is a very clear commitment, or a social contract, if you will, that we are committed that people should have access to essential medical care regardless of their ability to pay. Now, that may sound absurd in the only high-income country without universal health coverage, but as we discuss in our book, that represents our failure to fulfill that commitment, not its absence. And as we describe in great detail, it’s very clear from our history of policy attempts that there is a strong commitment to do this. This is not a liberal or a conservative perspective. It’s, as we discuss, an innate and in some sense psychological or moral impulse. And once you recognize this, as people have across the political spectrum, fundamentally we’re not going to ever consciously deny access to essential medical care for people who lack resources, and that an enormous number of our existing policies have been a backhanded, scrambling, not coherently planned attempt to get there. And I’m not just talking about the requirement that people can't be turned away from the emergency room. If you look at all of these public policies we have to provide health insurance if you’re poor, if you’re young, if you’re old, if you’re disabled, if you’re a veteran, if you have specific diseases — there’s a program for low-income women with breast and cervical cancer. There’s a program for people with tuberculosis, for people with AIDS, for people with kidney failure. All of these arose out of particular political circumstances and salient moments where we felt compelled to act. It becomes very clear that we’re committed to doing this, and then a solution then becomes startlingly simple, once we agree. And, hopefully, if you don’t already, our book will convince you that whether or not you support this mission, it’s very clear it is the mission we’ve adopted as a society. Then the solution becomes startlingly simple.

Rovner: And the solution is …?

Finkelstein: Universal, automatic, basic coverage that’s free for everyone with the option — for those who want to and can afford it — to buy supplemental coverage. So the key is that the coverage be automatic, right? We’ve tried mandating that people have coverage … requiring it doesn’t make it so. In fact, a really sobering fact is that something like 6 out of 10 of the people who currently lack insurance actually are eligible for either free or heavily discounted coverage. They just don’t have it. And that’s because there’s a very, very complicated series of paths by which you can navigate coverage, depending, again, on your specific circumstances: age, income, disease, geography, disability, what have you. Once you have patches like this, you’ll always have gaps in the seam. So that’s why it has to be universal and automatic. We also argue that it has to be free, something that may get us kicked out of the economists' club because, as economists for generations, we’ve preached that patients need some skin in the game, some copays and deductibles, so they don’t use more care than they actually really need. And in the context of universal coverage, we take that back. It was kind of a really sobering moment for us. We’ve written enormously on this issue in the past. We weren’t wrong about the facts. When people don’t have to pay for their medical care, they do use more of it. We stand by that research. And that of many other …

Rovner: This goes back to Rand in the 1970s, right?

Finkelstein: Exactly. And the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, which I ran with Kate Baicker, whom you mentioned earlier. It’s just that the implications we drew from that we’re wrong — that if we actually are committed to providing a basic set of essential medical care for everyone, the problem is, even with very small copays, there will always be people who can’t afford the $5 prescription drug copay or the $20 doctor copay. And there’s actually terrific recent work by a group of economists — Tal Gross, Tim Layton, and Daniel Prinz — that show this quite convincingly. So what we’ve seen happen when we look at other high-income countries that have followed the advice of generations of economists going back, as you said, to Rand, and introduced or increased cost sharing in their universal basic coverage system to try to reduce expenses, it’s extraordinary. Time and time again, these countries introduced the copays with one hand and introduced the exceptions simultaneously with the other — exceptions for the old, the young, the poor, the sick, veterans, disabled. Sound familiar? It’s the U.S. health insurance in a microcosm applied to copays. And so what you see happen, for example, in the U.K., that was famously, you know, free at the point of service when it was started in 1948, but then, bowing to budgetary pressures and the advice of economists introduced, for example, a bunch of copays and prescription drugs. They then introduced all these exceptions. The end result is that currently 90% of prescriptions in the U.K. are actually exempted from these copays. So it’s not that copays don’t reduce health care spending. They do. That economic research is correct. It’s that they’re not going to do that when they don’t exist. All we do is add complexity with these patches. So that’s, I think, the part that we can get up and stand up and say and get a lot of cheers and applause. But I do want to be clear, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. We do insist that this universal, automatic, free coverage be very basic. And that’s because our social contract is about providing essential medical care, not about the high-end experience that obviously everyone would like, if it were free. And so …

Rovner: And that’s exactly where you get into these fights about how — even, we’re seeing, you know, with birth control and pretty much any prescription drug — you have to offer one drug, but there are other drugs that might be more expensive, and insurance plans, trying to save money, don’t want to offer them. You can see already where the tension points are going to end up. Right?

Finkelstein: Exactly. And every other country has dealt with this, which is why we know it can be done. But they do one thing that is startlingly absent from U.S. health policy. Besides the universal coverage part, they also have a budget. And it's kind of both incredibly banal and incredibly radical to say, "We should have a budget in our U.S. health care policy as well." Everything else has a budget. When school districts make education policy, they do it given a budget and they decide how to make tough choices and allocate money across different types of programming. Or they decide to raise taxes, and go to the voters to raise taxes to fund more. We don’t have a budget for health care in the U.S. When people talk about the Medicare budget, they’re not actually talking about a budget in the sense that when I give my kids an allowance, that’s their budget, and they have to decide which toy to buy or which candy to purchase. When we talk about the Medicare budget, we just mean the amount we have spent or the amount that Medicare will spend. There’s no actual constraint, and that has to change. And only then can we have those tough conversations, as every other country does, about what’s going to be provided automatically and for free, and what’s obviously nice and desirable, but not actually part of essential medical care and our social contract to provide it.

Rovner: But, of course, the big response to this is going to be — and I’ve covered enough of these debates to know — you’re going to ruin innovation if we have a budget, if we limit what we can pay, the way every other country does, that we’re not going to have breakthrough drugs or breakthrough medical devices or breakthrough medical procedures, and we’re all going to be the worse for it.

Finkelstein: That, I think, is a very real concern, but it’s not a problem for us, because if that’s the concern, when the next administration adopts our policy, they can set a higher budget. Right? If we think that we want to induce innovation, and the way to do that is through higher prices for medical care, then we can decide to pay more for it — or we can decide, oh, my goodness, right, get it coming and going. On the other hand, we don’t want to raise taxes. We don’t want to spend even more of public money on health care. OK, well, then we’ll decide on less innovation. That’s in some sense separable from universal, automatic, basic free coverage. We can then decide what level we want to finance that at. And also, to be clear, we fully expect, in the context of our proposal, that about two-thirds of Americans would buy supplemental coverage that would get you access to things that aren’t covered by basic or greater choice of doctor or shorter wait times. And so that, again, might also — but that would be privately financed, not publicly financed — but that would also help with the innovation angle.

Rovner: And this is not a shocking thing. This is exactly how Switzerland works, right?

Finkelstein: Yeah, the somewhat sobering or, dare I say, humbling realization we came to is that, as I said, we very much thought about this — I guess, as academics — from first principles, you know, what is the objective that we’re trying to achieve it? And given that, how do we achieve it? But once we did that and we looked around the rest of the world — right? — it turns out that’s actually what every other high-income country has done, not just Switzerland, but all of them have some version. And they’re very different on the details, but some version of automatic, universal, basic coverage with the ability to then supplement if you want more. So, with many things when you do research on them and then you run into the man on the street and they say, "Isn’t this simple? Can’t we just do what every other country does?" When it comes to health care delivery and how to cut waste and overuse and deal with underuse in the health care system, the man on the street is, unfortunately, wrong. And we have a lot more work to do to figure out how we can get more bang for our health care buck. But it turns out they were right all along. And we, or I and my co-author and many other, I think, academic economists and policymakers, just didn’t realize it, that actually the coverage problem has a really, really simple solution. And that’s the key message of our book.

Rovner: So one of the things that's stuck with me for 15 years now is a piece that Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker just before the debate on the Affordable Care Act about how, yes, every other country has this, but, in fact, every other country had some kind of event that triggered the need to create a system. You know, in England, it was coming out of World War II. Every country had some turning point. Is there going to be some turning point for the U.S. or are we just going to have to sort of knuckle under and do this?

Finkelstein: So we deliberately steer clear of the politics in most of the book because our view is the question you started with, like, "Why can’t we agree?" So let’s at least … can we agree on the solution before we figure out how to achieve it? But, of course, in the epilogue, we do discuss this, you know, how could we get there? And I guess the main lesson that we take away from our read of history is that universal health insurance was neither destined to happen in every other country, nor destined not to happen in the U.S. We talk about several incredibly near-misses in the U.S. Probably the closest we got was in the early 1970s, when both the Republican Nixon administration and the Democratic Congress under Kennedy had competing proposals for universal coverage on the table. They were actually arguing over whether there should be copays when there are different accounts of whether the Democrats got overly optimistic with Watergate looming and thought they could get more, or some senator got drunk and had a car accident and Ways and Means got derailed. But we had a near-miss there. But also, and to your point about the U.K., more soberingly, if you look at the history of other countries, it wasn’t easy there. I mean, the British Medical Association threatened to go on strike before the implementation of the National Health Service in 1948. So, despite that, you know, now it’s … the National Health Service is as popular as the British monarchy — or actually more popular, perhaps …

Rovner: [laughs] Probably more!

Finkelstein: … and is beloved by much of the British population. But if you look at the narrative that this was destined to come out of the postwar consensus, the Labour leader, [Aneurin “Nye”] Bevan, who was pushing for it on the eve of its enactment, described the Tories as, quote, "lower than vermin for their opposition to it." I mean, it was just … and similarly in Canada, when Saskatchewan was the first province to get universal medical insurance, there the doctors did go on strike for over three weeks. So this idea that every other country just had their destiny, their moment, when it clearly came together, and we were destined not to have it? Neither seems to be an accurate reading of history.

Rovner: Well, it’s a wonderful read. And I’m sure we’ll come back and talk again as we dive back into this debate …

Finkelstein: I’d love to.

Rovner: … which I'm sure we're about to do. Amy Finkelstein, thank you so much for joining us.

Finkelstein: Thank you so much for having me.

Rovner: Hey, "What the Health?" listeners. You already know that few things in health care are ever simple. So, if you like our show, I recommend you also listen to "Tradeoffs," a podcast that goes even deeper into our costly, complicated, and often counterintuitive health care system. Hosted by longtime health care journalist and friend Dan Gorenstein, "Tradeoffs" digs into the evidence and research data behind health care policies and tells the stories of real people impacted by decisions made in C-suites, doctors' offices, and even Congress. Subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Next, we have Sylvia Morris, one of a group of friends who are women physicians who want to make it easier for the next generation of women physicians.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Sylvia Morris. She’s an internist from Atlanta and one of five authors of a new book called "The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine." Dr. Morris, welcome to "What the Health?"

Sylvia Morris: Thank you so much for having me.

Rovner: So why does there even need to be a book about being a woman in medicine? Aren’t medical schools more than half women students these days?

Morris: They are. But when you look at some of the specialties, and once you get out into practice, women leaders are still not as plentiful. They are not 50%. So, we just wanted to write from our perspective some tips and tools of the trade.

Rovner: So before we talk about the book, tell us about how you and your co-authors got together. It is rare to find a book that has five listed authors.

Morris: Exactly. So we actually went to med school together. We were classmates at Georgetown, and we met, I will say, in the early '90s, shall we say? 1992, 1993. And after we finished med school, as well as training, we started doing girls' trips. Our first one was, like, to Las Vegas and then subsequently have just really evolved. And probably 10 years ago, we were sitting around in Newport Beach and we thought, you know what? We should figure out something to do to really, to give back, but also to share information that we didn’t have. I am a first-generation physician. Several of my co-authors are as well. And it would have been nice for someone to say, "Hey, Doc, maybe you should think about this." So that’s why we wrote the book.

Rovner: I noticed that, yeah, I mean, you start very much at the beginning — like, way before med school and go all the way through a career. I take it that was very intentional.

Morris: Yes, because I don’t think most people wake up and decide they’re going to be a doctor and then apply to medical school. And although we all have different journeys, some of us decided to become physicians later. Later, meaning in college. I was a kid that always wanted to be a doctor. So at 5, I would say "I want to be a doctor," and here I am a physician. So we really wanted to highlight the different pathways to becoming a physician and just so that people can just … we’re going to peel the curtain back on what’s happening.

Rovner: I love how sort of list-forward this book is. Tell us the idea of actually making a game plan.

Morris: Well, we’re big "list people." I think in med school, you kind of learn, well, what’s your to-do list for today? You need to check that CBC. Yeah, you know, you have to follow up on physical therapy, all of those things. So lists become a really inherent part of how we do business. And I think people understand the list, whether it’s a grocery shopping list. So we wanted to be prescriptive, not specific, meaning you must do X, but here are some of the things that you need to think about. And a list is very succinct, and everyone can get it.

Rovner: Which leads right into my next question. I love how this is such a nitty-gritty guide about all of the balancing that everybody in such a demanding profession of medicine, but particularly women, need to think about and do. What do you most wish that you had known when you were starting out that you’d like to spare your readers?

Morris: If I could go back to my 17-year-old self who was just dropped off at Berkeley, I really would say, "Enjoy the ride." And that sounds so trite, because we get very caught up in "it has to be this way." And quite honestly, things have not turned out how I thought they were going to turn out. Certainly, in many ways, much grander and beyond my wildest imagination. But you do have to be intentional about what you want. So I’ve been very clear about wanting to be a physician, and I've worked along that path. It is never a straight line. So just embrace the fact that there are going to be some ups and some downs, but keep in focus on the goal and persevere. I’d like to borrow the word from Associate Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, how she talked about persevere.

Rovner: I noticed that there are a number of places where there are key decisions that need to be made. And I think, you know, you talk about being intentional. I think people don’t always think about them as they’re doing them, as in deciding where to go to medical school, where to do a residency, what specialty to choose, what type of practice to participate in. The five of you are all in different specialties in different sort of practice modalities, right?

Morris: Yes, we are. And I think that that really adds to the richness of the book. And again, there’s no one way to get to your goal. But we have the benefit of being able to sort of bounce ideas off of each other. So if we are looking for a new job or kind of a career pivot, then we have someone to reach out to to say, "Hey. You did this. What are your thoughts? What should I look out for?"

Rovner: How important is it to have a support system? I mean, obviously, you talk about family and kids, but, I mean, to have a support system of friends and colleagues and people you can actually share stresses and successes with, that others will understand.

Morris: It is so important to know that you are not alone. There’s nothing new under the sun. So if you are going through something where we suffer in silence and isolation, that’s when bad things happen. So having a trusted group of friends, and whether it’s one person or three people — I’m lucky to have at least four people in my life that I can be candid and vulnerable with. It makes all the difference in the world. My mom died when I was in medical school, and having the support of my colleagues, my friends, to say, "Hey, yeah, you can keep going. You can do this." That’s important. And there are some very low periods in residency, just because you’re tired all of the time. So having a group, whether it’s one or three or four, then please, have friends.

Rovner: I’m curious that while you are all African American women, you don’t really have a separate section on navigating medicine as members of an underrepresented group. Is that for another book entirely? Was there a specific reason that you didn’t do that?

Morris: I think certainly when people see us on the cover, then you'd realize, "Oh, they are women of African descent." And I also think that because … women are still underrepresented in medicine, in particular in leadership, that we wanted to make sure we reached the broadest audience. And quite truthfully, our message works for not only women, but also works for men, it works for people of color. We just really wanted to say, "Hey, these are the things that we can think about when you are applying to medical school and as you embark on your career." But I like the idea of a second book.

Rovner: Actually, that’s my … my next question is, what do you hope that men get out of this? Because, you know, flipping through, it’s a really good guide, not just to being a woman in medicine, but to being anyone in medicine or really anyone in a very time-demanding profession.

Morris: Yes, the word "ally" is kind of overused now, but I think that it gives the men in our lives, whether they be our partners and husbands, our fathers — I have a favorite uncle, Uncle William — to have an inkling of what’s happening and how to best support us. So I think that there’s just some valuable pearls.

Rovner: Well, thank you very much. It is a really eye-opening guide. Dr. Sylvia Morris, thank you for joining us.

Morris: Thank you.

Rovner: Finally for this special episode, here’s my chat with Michael LeNoir, a physician who spent much of his career trying to improve the health of African American patients.

We are pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Michael LeNoir, an allergist and pediatrician who spent the last 4½ decades serving patients in the East Bay of San Francisco and working to improve health equity nationwide. He’s a former president of the National Medical Association, which represents African American physicians and patients, and a founder of the African American Wellness Project, a nonprofit that grew out of the realization of just how large and persistent health disparities are for people of color. Dr. LeNoir, welcome to "What the Health?"

Michael LeNoir: Well, thank you so much.

Rovner: Health disparities and health equity have become, if you will, trendy research topics in the past couple of years in the health policy community because we know that people of color have worse health outcomes in general than white people, regardless of income. But this is hardly a new problem. When did it become obvious to you that, despite other civil rights advances, the health system is still not serving the Black community equally?

LeNoir: Well, I think it goes back to, actually, 2002, when as a doctor in a community that had people of color, physicians of color, I recognized that there was a difference in how African Americans were treated both professionally and personally. And it was such a stark difference. So I gathered together most of the Black health leaders in the Bay Area, some running hospitals, some running programs, two were directors of health, some Congress people, and some local politicians. And there were about 30 people in the room. And I … go around the room and asked, give me one instance where the health system that you engaged in treated you disrespectfully or you didn’t get information, or you felt abandoned without advocates. And we weren't four people in when some people started crying about experiences that they’d all had. Now, I knew they had these experiences because of that as a doctor. You know, I’m in the doctor’s lounge as a consultant in allergy and immunology. I see the differences in how Black people were treated as opposed to whites. And I see the respect that was given to white physicians that was not given to Black physicians. So at that point, I decided, you know, there’s something upside down in this health system. The concept is that health is supposed to take care of you from the top down. Either your insurance company is supposed to take care of you, or the feds, or somebody. But my feeling was, you know, for African Americans the health system was not going to change unless we changed it from the bottom up. And so that’s when we started the African American Wellness Project to educate African Americans how to deal with some of the aspects of early detection, disease prevention, exercise, and things like that. But more importantly, what to happen when you have a problem, when you engage with the system. What tools do you need? What resources do you need? How do you get the best possible outcomes?

Rovner: So just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey that found that 1 in 5 women reported being mistreated by medical professionals during pregnancy or delivery. For Black women, it was closer to 1 in 3. This is clearly some sort of systemic problem even in addition to racism, isn’t it? The health system is not functioning well.

LeNoir: We did a piece on this yesterday because it’s pretty clear that this has been a problem as long as I’ve been a physician. Where it’s really a problem is the increasing incidence of maternal mortality among Black women. And so now we know that there’s something going on that’s not being taken care of. There’s one classic video that we show when we talk about this subject. It was a Black physician in Illinois who was in a small Illinois town, was in the intensive care unit, and could not get the care that she needed when she had covid respiratory issues. And so what happened was she was broadcasting from the ICU about what was being given to her, what was being talked to her about, what was not being done. And her care … when her symptoms were ignored, how they delayed in doing stuff. And she died four days after she did this video. But, you know, we’re not surprised. I mean, I see these studies of Black people don’t like the health care system. You know, Kaiser Foundation [KFF] must have spent, I don't know how many dollars, looking at a study we did five years ago. On every study I’ve seen, Black people are not happy with the health care system. They had 12,000 people. We had 400. But the conclusions are the same. And it’s not so much because of the availability or the capacity of the health care system to close the gap on the health of Blacks and others in this society. It has a lot to do with unconscious bias and the fact that the system doesn’t recognize itself. And no matter how much you call attention to it, it continues year after year, decade after decade.

Rovner: Is there anything we can do about unconscious bias? I mean, now we all know it’s there, but that doesn’t seem to get around to fixing it.

LeNoir: There’s several things that have been talked about: change in medical schools and showing them more positive images so that when they come out of medical school, then the only patients that we see are poor, Black, uneducated, you know, down and out, because those are the ones that go to the VA hospital or the public hospitals. So that’s one thing. And the other thing is a Black person should call it out when they see it. That’s the big thing. And I think we’re much too docile in the health care system. Here’s what I always would feel is that if we get as mad about health care that is disrespectful and unequal as we do when someone cuts in front of us in the Safeway line, we wouldn’t have that problem.

Rovner: Seriously, I mean, so you think people really just need to speak up more?

LeNoir: Absolutely. And in the piece that we did yesterday, the piece was entitled "Health Care System Not Equal," don’t put up with it.

Rovner: What can Black doctors do and how do we get more of them? I know that’s a big piece of this is that people don’t feel represented within the health care provider community.

LeNoir: Well, unfortunately, we know and probably you kno, and probably most patients know, that a good doctor may not be the smartest person in a medical school. They may have a variety of different prejudices and a variety of different talents or a variety of different capacity to engage patients in a positive way. But our medical system and our system that screens students for medical school really kinda looks more at analytics. I mean, what kind of grades you make, what your SATs look like, what kind of symbolic social things did you do in order to get into medical school? And so, consequently, that shuts out a lot of students at a very early place in the system. A Black student often goes into the system determined to be a doctor, but he doesn’t have those resources, those networks, those connections. So he bombs out in junior college. I can remember I had a unique educational experience. I went to a college-educated … well, middle school in Cincinnati. It’s called Walnut Hills High School No. 3. [To get in] you took a test, and my dad was a YMCA executive. So we moved to Dallas, Texas, which was completely segregated. So I recognized immediately when I got there that the learning experience was different, but the education was not. Because I learned as a Black student in an environment that was college preparatory that … I didn’t have many allies in that many networks. And my parents, like so many Black parents, said, there’s no excuses. You can’t … don't be coming on with the excuse of discrimination, when we were facing it every day. And more than that, on the positive side, we’re not being encouraged like the white students were. When I got to Dallas, you know, we didn’t have all the books, we didn't have all the stuff, but the teachers knew I had talent, and they pushed me and pushed me, pushed me. So when I went off to a university by choice — could have gone to Stanford, all these other places — that I had the talent. Whereas back in my high school there were students as good as I was as students. And then they went off to the University of Texas, where I ultimately transferred, which didn’t seem to be a big deal for me because I thought Howard actually was harder. But they go to the University of Texas, they were from a segregated school, and then by themselves and they bomb out … and so consequently they don’t get to realize the bigger part of themselves. So getting back to this question that you asked five minutes ago. The reason is that the parameters to choose people for medical school need to start earlier, and they need to encourage Blacks, especially Black males of talent, so they can then go on and do some things that are necessary to get into medical school.

Rovner: Yeah, I’ve seen some programs that are trying to recruit kids as young as 11 or 12 to gauge interest in going into a medical career.

LeNoir: Yeah, well, I think that’s, you know, that’s so unnecessary. But it’s a game. I mean, who is it … the doctor … your old Dr. So-and-So didn’t go to Harvard. So the talents to be a good doctor, you know, I don’t know whether you feel this way. I don't think you can teach judgment by the time somebody gets out of high school. You know, physicians, the first thing I think that you have to have is good judgment, and good judgment can be sometimes assessed on the MCAT and these other things that they use to prioritize things for that.

Rovner: I know the Association of American Medical Colleges is very concerned about the Supreme Court decision that came down earlier this year banning affirmative action. Are you also worried about what that might mean for medical school admissions?

LeNoir: Well, you have to realize that in California, we’ve been dealing with this since the Bakke decision, so we’ve not been able … and I served on medical school committees. I served on the University of California-San Diego, and one year here at UC-San Francisco, kinda chaired the clinical faculty, so had the chance to kind of get engaged in policy here. And what we found out was that you can’t change that. You have to change the system itself.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean, how worried are you, obviously in California, I guess, things have gone OK, but it’s going to be a big change at a lot of other medical schools about how they’re going to go about admitting their next classes and trying to at least further more culturally diverse classes of medical students.

LeNoir: Well, you know, California’s not done OK. I mean the percentage of California students — I believe diversity in California is probably 50% less than it was in the days when we had more liberal affirmative action guidelines. And so in those days, we were reporting 24, 25 Black students in these classes. That’s not happening anymore. So … I do worry. I mean, the reality is right in front of us. And I think that some schools … not necessarily the schools themselves, but the politicians that supervise these schools that have oversight over these schools are going to use this as a weapon. I know that already many of the attorney generals have sent letters to the university saying, look, I don’t care what you do, it’s not going to happen anymore. And the first persons to leave jobs now are diversity. Good jobs in diversity management … those jobs are disappearing almost as we speak.

Rovner: So if you could do just one thing that would help the system along to make things a little bit less unequal, what would it be?

LeNoir: I think it would be making certain that the system has the tools to detect two types of unconscious bias: this personal unconscious bias on the part of providers, but this institutional unconscious bias. And I think we have to attack that first. Institutions don’t look at African Americans the same way. And here’s … let me give you an example of what that falls out to. Let’s look at the statistics on vaccinations in ethnic groups. The impression is that Black people didn’t get vaccinated. But at the end of the day, if you looked at the numbers, we were vaccinated pretty much about the same level as the rest of America. But when we got ready to look at this, what we found out is hesitancy was based upon the fact that Black people did not trust the system. And institutions are expected to come out, here you are, you know, you’re part of an institution. You see a different doctor every week. And they come out to tell you you’re supposed to do your shots and stuff like that. Then Black people don’t believe that. They don’t go, they don’t go with that. And so consequently, at the end of the day, once the information came out and people got a chance to look at it, we started getting vaccinations at the same rate. But the people who are asking us to trust them had never attempted institutionally to obtain our trust. And so I think under those circumstances, that’s one of the reasons, that’s one of the things we most have to attack is institutional unconscious bias, institutional racism that’s covered over by the fact that we're taking care of the poor. You know, we do all these things here and there, but poor people have opinions, too. And if we expect to change the system where everybody is treated equally, we have to look at what the institutional policies, or the institutional character or personality that results in the kinds of outcomes that we see in hospitals. And then we start looking at providers and other people. And they have to start engaging in this community now. There’ll be another pandemic, you know that. I know that. Probably this summer, this winter, things are going to … Look, what have doctors done? What have institutions done to gain the trust of the populations they serve? Probably nothing.

Rovner: Well, we’ve seen, you know, one of the things the pandemic has shown us is that now all Americans don’t trust institutions anymore. Is there maybe even a way to help everyone gain more trust? I mean, I guess it’s becoming much more obvious to at least the public health community that much of the public in general is distrustful of public health advice, of medical advice, of expertise in general.

LeNoir: Oh, yeah, there's no question. This is not a unique problem among African Americans. I mean, it’s hard to trust a system where you have a problem and your doctor refers you somewhere and your next appointment is four months away. And here’s what the tragedy is: Nobody in Washington is talking about changing the system. I can remember the big furor over what were we going to do? Are we going to do single-payer? Are we going to do this? At least there was a dialog. Have you heard a dialog in Washington about changing this awful health care system that denies people access, overcharges them, and then is not blamed for the outcomes? I haven’t seen any of that. I haven't seen anybody talk about health care at the national level. We used to do pieces, I remember years ago when I worked for CBS Radio, I tried to get a curriculum for hypertension, diabetes. Now you barely see anything on health except violence, and you don’t see too many pieces that people could use for health education. So I think the system is really broken and nobody’s … I don't see any, even in the discussions last night [during the first Republican presidential primary debate], health never came up. You know, Ukraine, but not the health care system, which is really cheating us all.

Rovner: Yeah, I know. I mean, we’re … an entire Republican debate, and there was not a single mention of the Affordable Care Act or anything else that Republicans might want to do to fix a health care system that I think even Republican voters know is broken.

LeNoir: Yeah, I think that [Donald] Trump has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. And they’re not talking policy very much at all. I mean, even the undertones of the policy discussions have Trump all over it. So I think we’re in a very bad place, but I hate to see that escalating discussion on how to change the health care system, not just for the good of the poor people and Black people, I don't think white people are really particularly excited about the system, and that dialog is not taking place.

Rovner: Is there anything you can offer that’s at all optimistic about this?

LeNoir: Well, no. No, I really can't. As a doctor, I can tell you. Here's the expanding issue. It just seems now that the solution to all the health problems that we have are the social determinants of health. I mean, you know, income and poverty and food, you know, issues and employment, all of that, they all contribute definitely to health outcomes. And so until we change those, then obviously the system, they say, will not change. Every chronic disease that I’ve looked at over the last 10 or 15 years, and especially recently, what Black people don’t do as well, it’s not because they don’t get into the system at the right time. They may even have early disease detection. It’s because they are not treated the same way. So if you look at statistics, all Black women have more deaths from breast cancer, our Black children have more asthma. It’s not because they don’t enter the system. It’s how they’re treated when they get into the system. So then going back to what we can do, we have to arm the patient, Black or white, to understand what you need to do to get the most effective outcomes. How do you select your primary care doctor? It's critically important to everything that happens to you. How you’re able to challenge the system with a second opinion when you want that. To have an advocate, if you go into the hospital, not your brother or sister, but somebody who knows something about health care. So what we’re trying to do with the African American Wellness Project is to do that. We talk about early detection. Here's the other problem with this. Now, I’d rather have penicillin than get rid of poverty or to get everybody a job. And in the New England Journal probably maybe a week ago, there was an editorial about how we as physicians should be able to manage the other elements, the social determinant elements, as part of our visits. Now I've barely got enough time to see the patients that I have. Now I’m supposed to get somebody food, a job and all that … but I’m not saying that that doesn't need to change. It does. But if every solution to the problem of health equity is the social determinants like I’m seeing, then I mean, we might not get penicillin, but we may get somebody a job. But I think that that that process is important. It is important. But if you look at studies that at the VA, especially with men with prostate cancer, or if you have prostate cancer and … everything’s done exactly the same: early detection, the PSAs, the biopsy, the identification — the prostate is done not by biopsy, but by MRI — and they treat it the same, Black people do better. And the same thing is true with breast cancer and other chronic diseases. All these studies. You can go to PubMed, and you look at all these studies and you see every study talks about that, that the reason that they’re not doing as well, is because of the social determinants of health. Now, I mean, I appreciate that, but I’m not going to wait for everybody to get a job before I try to get a stent put in my artery, or I try to get some concern for my position. So to go back to your question again that you asked me five minutes ago, is that we need to talk to people about the system they face, and they need to go into it with less naivete and more organization. And that’s what we try to do with the African American Wellness [Project]. We try to provide you with that information and the tools that you need when you need to go into the system. If you need to know what questions to ask … we’ll tell you how to do that. One of the things I found out is I engage social media as a way to talk to people, because I’ve always used traditional media and, boy, I recognize now that you have to do it a little differently. You can’t do it exactly the same way. And so I just think we have to prepare people and we have to tell them the things that they need to do to recognize and understand before they enter the system. Until we start to get more serious in this country, about that dialog on our health care system, I think the individual is the only way we can approach it.

Rovner: Dr. LeNoir, thank you. Thank you so much for all of what you’re doing and thank you for joining us today.

LeNoir: Thank you for having me.

Rovner: OK, that's our show for this week. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always to our amazing engineer, Francis Ying. And also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We're at [email protected]. Or you can tweet me or X me or whatever. I’m still @jrovner, also on Bluesky and Threads. I hope you enjoyed this special episode. We’ll be back with our regular podcast panel after Labor Day. Until then, be healthy.


  • Francis Ying Audio producer
  • Stephanie Stapleton Editor

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF - the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.


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