Two doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA are known for standing up for anti-racist policies that address the concerns of non-white patients who may otherwise feel excluded from the healthcare system.
But their work is also drawing the ire of a group of white nationalists. Around two dozen white men stood in front of the hospital last month wearing khakis and holding a bedsheet with the words, “B and W Hospital Kills Whites.” They also passed out fliers to the public condemning the doctors and what they see as “preferential health care policies for non-white patients”, but both doctors say they aren’t discriminating against anyone.
One of the doctors in question is Dr. Michelle Morse, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is chief medical officer for the New York City Health Department. She formerly worked at Brigham and Women’s.
The other doctor is Dr. Bram Wispelwey, an internal medicine and public health doctor at Brigham and Women’s who also teaches at Harvard Medical School.
After the protest, Morse vigorously defended her approach to medicine.
“What I’m trying to do is hold the medical industrial complex accountable for the harms that it’s caused to communities of color and to other communities and push for racial justice and health equity in all of the institutions that I’m involved in and in partnership with the many communities that I serve,” Morse said. “And I think ultimately in the COVID era, part of what that means is a real serious push to make inequities more visible.”
Wispelwey has also been tackling institutional racism in medicine. He has addressed a number of potential inequalities in the system, including how doctors use “racially blind” methods when admitting patients for heart surgery. “And so, we wanted to take a race-explicit approach,” Wispelwey said. “We can’t wait until these predominantly white institutions sort of come around … we want to actually make sure our patients are taken care of in the best way possible right now.”
Both doctors were part of a group of providers at Brigham and Women’s that questioned why Black and Latinx patients with heart failure were more likely than white patients to end up in general medicine rather than the cardiology unit, where patients have better outcomes.
That initial inquiry led to a study that showed a probable link between institutional racism and heart failure. The doctors went on to create a program at Mass General Brigham that aims to improve access for Black and Latinx patients who historically have not had equitable access to specialized cardiology care.
This program is one of many initiatives included in Mass General Brigham’s “United Against Racism”, which creates a roadmap for delivering healthcare services to underserved communities.
Morse and Wispelwey an article in Boston Review in 2021 titled “An Anti-racist Agenda for Medicine” that lays out their approach to combatting these inequities in the healthcare system.
They wrote that their model of care is based on critical race theory, which reexamines U.S. history through the lens of slavery and the accomplishments of Black and indigenous people. In the article, they called for “medical restitution” for Black people, who have been excluded from first-rate care.
The article was posted on the Boston Review’s Twitter account where it received hundreds of “likes” and comments. However, their work also caught the attention of the world of conservative media.
The doctors were denounced on live TV during a segment on the Tucker Carlson Show on Fox News.
Morse commented on how many people were misinterpreting her work, including “some right-wing person, basically describing Bram’s and my work as racist or as somehow unfair to white people.”
“This is what triggered this whole backlash,” Wispelwey said. He added that the intimidation began with “really extensive threats, not just to us personally, but to our hospital. And then most recently last week when a white nationalist and neo-Nazi group showed up at our hospital.”
More doctors are starting to prioritize these anti-racist policies, but this line of work can also attract some unwanted attention. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of reported death threats against doctors and public health professionals, but there’s little data regarding the number of threats directed at doctors advocating for anti-racist policies.
However, Manisha Sharma, a California based family medicine physician, has been keeping a running tally of colleagues who are active in the social justice movement and have received hate mail and says the problem is widespread.
“In recent years, I definitely had an uptick in friends who have, like, literally received death threats,” she said. Sharma, who is of South-Asian descent, said American medicine is already a lonely place for Black and brown doctors, but added “when you’re Black and brown, doing justice, anti-racist work, you’re even more so alone.”
Local reporters traced the email address listed on the fliers that were distributed during the rally and linked the protesters to a fascist group that was founded in Worchester in 2019. The men standing outside Brigham and Women’s were later identified as members of the Nationalist Social Club, which the Anti-Defamation League described as a “a neo-Nazi group with small, autonomous regional chapters in the United States and abroad.”
Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, said the group has had relatively little success but the rally helped put them on the map. “They’ve drawn more racists and white supremacists and antisemites into their ranks,” Trestan said. “And we know this because their most recent demonstration in front of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital actually drew more people than we’ve seen at previous protests that they’ve organized.”
However, both Morse and Wispelwey remain undeterred by these threats.
“The fact that you have an avowed white nationalist neo-Nazi group show up at a hospital really speaks to the work that still remains to be done. And it’s just so important that the work continue,” Wispelwey said.
“We should be doing a bajillion times more than this, even more actively and more directly and with bigger and more resources,” Morse added.