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Black doctors accuse Sutter Health of discrimination, CEO's response met with skepticism

Sutter Health’s CEO, Warner Thomas, has pledged to end racism that has, allegedly, targeted Black physicians at Sutter’s hospitals and clinics for years.  Thomas, however, has yet to agree to discuss his reform efforts with the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit or any other media outlet, despite his pledge last month to “engage in media requests.”

It is disheartening to hear that Sutter has walked back that commitment to transparency,” said Lisa Holder, president of the Equal Justice Society, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on advocacy, education, and litigation to end discrimination. 

Holder, a long-time civil rights attorney and a Gov. Gavin Newsom appointee to California’s Reparations Task Force, has never filed suit against Sutter Health, but her nonprofit has taken on unrelated cases with a law firm that is currently suing Sutter for racial discrimination on behalf of a Black physician.

“In order to commit to creating a more inclusive institution, you must commit to creating a more compassionate and transparent institution,” Holder said.

Sutter Health is the third largest hospital system in California with more than 20 hospitals, 12,000 physicians, and 3 million patients.

Lisa Holder, a Governor Newsom appointee to California’s Reparations Task Force, is president of the Equal Justice Society, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on ending discrimination.

Over the past two months, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has reported on nearly a dozen current and former Sutter Health doctors who said they were treated poorly by leadership at the hospital system because they are Black.

“There was a toxic environment that just permeated,” said Dr. Yinka Davies, a pediatric gastroenterologist who spent more than 10 years practicing at Sutter Health’s flagship hospital in Sacramento.  “I’d never experienced anything like this.”

Davies was one of a trio of physicians recently profiled by the Investigative Unit.  She, along with Dr. Kevin Smothers and Dr. Pringl Miller, joined Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban for a group interview where the physicians, who had never met one another prior, recounted experiences of discrimination during their tenures at Sutter.  Between them, they said they were bullied, harassed, and humiliated – impacting their mental health, pay, and patients.

“If underrepresented docs – Black doctors – are being structurally eliminated from the workforce, that means that it’s going to impact the communities that they serve,” Miller said. “We know that there’s health care disparities based on race and the community ripple effect is not insignificant.”

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Three days after their joint interview aired on NBC Bay Area, Thomas sent Sutter’s board of directors a letter saying he was “personally disturbed by the discrimination claims” and vowed to take “several immediate actions.”

I am personally disturbed by the discrimination claims made by three Sutter affiliated physicians in a local Bay Area NBC story…”

Warner Thomas, Sutter Health CEO

In the letter, dated May 15, Thomas pledged to hire a consultant to work alongside him on the reform effort, create a diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) council for physicians, and review internal training and hiring practices. 

Thomas also vowed to invite Davies, Smothers, and Miller to meet with him personally. While Davies and Smothers say they’ve since been contacted by Thomas to schedule the meeting, Miller says she has yet to receive any type of communication from Thomas or anyone else at Sutter regarding such a meeting.

The long list of promises in Thomas’s letter also included a vow to “engage in media requests.” 

Throughout NBC Bay Area’s reporting, Sutter, repeatedly, declined to be interviewed about the discrimination claims.

After Thomas sent his letter to Sutter’s board of directors, the Investigative Unit, once again, requested an interview with him.  Thomas’s staff then said he “is willing to be interviewed” and promised to schedule it.

That was three weeks ago.

Despite the Investigative Unit’s repeated attempts to follow up, Sutter has yet to schedule an interview. Instead, a spokesperson for the hospital system provided a statement, which appeared to veer away from Thomas’s earlier promises of engaging with journalists about his reform plans.

While Sutter Health CEO Warner Thomas promised last month to “engage in media requests” relating to lingering discrimination allegations from Black physicians, a Sutter Health spokesperson now says Thomas is too focused on reform efforts to answer questions from the media about his plans.

“We welcome the opportunity to talk about our progress in the future,” the statement noted.  “But given Sutter’s immediate focus on continued advancement of our [diversity, equity, inclusion] priorities, we are prioritizing implementation over interviews at this time.” 

“It’s a complete oxymoron,” Holder said.  “It makes absolutely no sense.  Part of their strategic plan should be to be very public facing and to be talking to the media about the changes that they’re making and their genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  

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