Heeding Dr. King's Words

By Dr. Ronald Copeland


The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continue to resonate throughout our society, leaving imprints on our lives as we walk through each of our unique journeys.

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”

It was a trip to Africa as a young student where I first encountered just how shocking the lack of equal access to healthcare can be. During my time in Africa, I witnessed a vicious degree of illness and human suffering. It left an indelible impression. I quickly learned so much was preventable, and it became clear that improvements could, and should, be fought for and secured.

One of the African public-health physicians displayed the powerful difference one person could make by serving others. One dedicated person could eliminate suffering and, most importantly, restore a person’s dignity. This experience brought forth my voice for social justice as expressed through an ignited passion to serve humanity through the practice of medicine.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Today, despite increased attention and focus, the health- and healthcare-inequity gaps that still exist disproportionately among people of color and limited economic means is beyond shocking. It is shameful for a nation committed to equality. Human suffering has unfortunately not been a sufficient motivator to transform our system.

Our failure to address these gaps in sustainable ways has resulted in a crippling effect on our nation’s global economy and competitiveness. Because of this, perhaps now we have arrived at the tipping point where the pain of maintaining the status quo has finally exceeded the pain of embracing true transformational change of our healthcare system.

As the Affordable Care Act rolls out over the next few years, it is critical that the true intent of this act to provide affordable healthcare to millions in need is not lost, despite the predictable speed-bump encounters that are part of any large-scale endeavor. All of us who esteem ourselves to be dedicated, informed and tireless leaders must refuse to accept failure as an option to overcome our healthcare injustices.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

This is the time for all “dedicated individuals” to devote their energy, attention and resources to ensuring that we keep our eyes, and the eyes of the nation, on this particular prize until the benefits of restoring health, dignity and productive lives are prevalent and self-evident. Given that this year’s celebration of Dr. King’s legacy coincides with the official rollout of the Affordable Care Act, as important as volunteerism is on a year-round basis, we don’t have to settle for symbolism and ceremony alone. A critical piece of Dr. King’s social-justice dream is at stake. We should use this historical moment not just to remember the dream, but to actually be inspired to answer the call to action and make affordable healthcare a reality for the many he gave his life to serve.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

At Kaiser Permanente, we honor the legacy of Dr. King by embedding his values into our company’s culture. That includes quality healthcare for everyone based on individual preference and need, and giving back to the communities we serve. As I spend Monday, Jan. 20, alongside my family, friends and coworkers impacting the lives of our patients, or spending time in the community painting a classroom or delivering supplies to a shelter, I am reminded of my trip to Africa so long ago. It takes just one person to help end the suffering of others and restore their dignity.

Imagine what all of us can do together.

Dr. Ronald Copeland is Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente, No. 3 in the DiversityInc Top 50. Prior to his current role, he spent 36 years as a physician (31 as a surgeon) for Kaiser Permanente and the United States Air Force Medical Corps.

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