“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1966, at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights

If the above quote shocked you, it’s because it should: with his signature eloquence, Dr. King here exposes the permanent consequences of health disparity in a single, haunting sentence. Unfortunately, the impact of his statement is often lost, as quoters frequently shorten the sentence by seven words to create a more palatable half-truth. And while the world has long benefitted from other hope-filled and inspirational statements of Dr. King, we believe that this full quote—sobering as it may be—has much to teach us in this moment.

Scholars like Charlene Galarneau have pointed out that, in its full context, Dr. King’s point in this speech was not merely to condemn health disparity in society; it was a call to legal and civil action against policymakers, healthcare providers, and hospitals across the nation for enacting or complying with racist, segregationist policies and practices. This institutionalized disparity was forcing Black patients into substandard treatments and facilities and yielding them vastly poorer outcomes.

Modern audiences would applaud his condemnation of historically racist healthcare policy, but true concern for health equity requires an honest look at our current system. So how far has healthcare come in the 55 years since Dr. King’s remarks?

  • Black Americans are almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19 complications compared to White, non-Hispanic populations (CDC, 2020)
  • Breast cancer deaths among Black women are 40% higher compared to White women (CDC, 2016)
  • Black mothers are three times more likely to die during childbirth than White mothers (CDC, 2019)
  • The infant mortality rate among Blacks in the U.S. is double the national average (CDC, 2018)

Although the policies establishing “separate but equal” facilities and practitioners have long ago faded into history, racial gaps in health outcomes persist and, in some cases, widen. This MLK Day, we challenge ourselves and all partners in healthcare to reflect on Dr. King’s words and ask ourselves: what can we do today to better recognize and address healthcare disparities within our own practices and across the healthcare continuum?

“Injustice in health … often results in physical death.” Life is the most basic of human rights, and the stakes are too high to turn the other way. Only when these gaps are closed will we as a profession, as an industry, and as a nation be truly honoring Dr. King’s memory.