Survey junkie. Yep, that’s me. I get giddy at the sight of fill-in-the-blanks. My survey responses are my own creative outlet. My favorite question of all? “What is your race?” Just to stir things up, my recent answers have included, “I’m American,” “I’m human,” and “Why do you ask?” That last one is a fair question, really. We’ve all been asked this question countless times and, of course, our target audiences have too. We’re asked this question when we visit the doctor, check into a hospital, or apply for a job. But why are we being asked about our race?
Can you really blame me and others for pushing back? After all, most of the time we have no idea why we’re being asked this and the range of other questions we face. Does the data go into some big database in the sky? Is it being used for a discreet government mission? OK, probably not. But my question still stands.
Some folks in health care settings are going to great lengths to collect race data. Take, for example, the hardworking folks manning hospital admissions desks across the country. Their job surely includes requesting race data from patients. Do you think they enjoy this task? I think not. Do you think they would rather not ask? I think so. Do you think they know why they’ve been tasked to ask the question? Well, maybe there’s an opportunity for us as health communicators to help out.
Regardless of whether the information actually gets used (we’re all guilty of requesting information that never ends up being used…think about all those Facebook pages you’ve liked but then never interacted); how is the information being used? No, “data overload” isn’t the issue I’m getting at here. We all know we are overwhelmed with data but remain short on information. The issue is whether the people collecting the data have actually considered why they are asking for it. Barring government mandates, the survey creator has put that race question there for a reason. But why are they asking? That gets at the heart of my intrigue. It’s easy to ask for data. But it’s harder to explain why it’s being requested.
What would happen if we, as health communicators, helped to bridge this gap? What if we changed the norm? What if we answered the “Why do you ask?” question before we even asked for the data? Health communicators can help start a dialogue around the data being requested. It would go something like this: “Ms. Carrigan, our hospital asks each patient his/her race. This is important because we want to be sure we are serving all parts of our community, and we want to provide all our patients with excellent care. Which of these categories best describes your race?” Gee, that sounds like a reasonable request. Heck, I might provide my ethnicity too.
Asking Patients about Race and Ethnicity: Right Ways and Wrong Ways: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/newsletters/the-commonwealth-fund-digest/2006/jan/january-february-2006/in-other-news/asking-patients-about-race-ethnicity–right-ways-and-wrong-ways
Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity, Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/fedreg_1997standards
Angela Carrigan holds a BA from the University of Florida and an MPH from the University of Maryland. Her passion for health communication stems from her experience helping pharmaceutical and government clients reach their target audiences about messages related to clinical research and clinical trials. She is also interested in organizational communications (e.g., within-hospital communications) and recently served on the 2014 Board of Examiners for the Maryland Performance Excellence Awards, a statewide program based on the national Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.