Racism in American healthcare needs to be addressed now more than ever

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

While police brutality against Black Americans has rightfully captivated media attention this summer, there is an unseen form of racial violence killing minorities in America: medical racism. 

Racism and discrimination in healthcare is not a novel issue. Doctors and other healthcare professionals, like all people, have their own opinions and biases; however, when human lives are at stake, it is crucial to swallow those preconceived notions in order to deliver the best quality care. 

Unfortunately, some doctors are incapable of exercising this basic human decency. 

Emergency room doctors are common culprits of this crime, as noted in a Harvard University study on discrimination amongst healthcare providers. Prone to distrust when evaluating minority patients, many refuse treatment on the grounds that they do not believe the symptoms their patients describe.

“[The doctors] treated me like I was trying to play them, like I was just trying to get pain meds out of them. They didn’t try to make any diagnosis or help me at all. They couldn’t get rid of me fast enough,” an African American patient said of her emergency room experiences in an interview with Dr. Monque Tello for “Harvard Health Blog.”

Untreated illnesses and injuries lead to death. The blood of the neglected is on the hands of not just individual doctors and nurses, but the American healthcare system as a whole.

“We know that our own subconscious prejudices, also called implicit bias, can affect the way we treat patients,” Dr. Tello said. “But most physicians are not explicitly racist and are committed to treating all patients equally. However, they operate in an inherently racist system.”

Little research has been done on the biologic differences between ethnicities, with a majority of clinical research performed on white, male participants. This means we do not have accurate data on how non-white individuals may react to certain drugs, nor a reliable list of health problems ethnic minorities may be genetically predisposed to. 

Instead, false claims circulate the medical field, such as the notion that Black people have measurably thicker skin or blood that coagulates more quickly. 

While these beliefs seem antiquated, a 2018 study revealed “50% of white medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biologic differences between Black and white people,” according to Dr. Rachel Hardeman in The Journal for New England Medicine.

Other factors also hold minorities back from getting proper treatment. The existing problem of discrimination in healthcare may be compounded by hidden costs, like hospital parking, meals, and lodging, as well as language barriers and poor health literacy amongst minority populations. 

The systematic flaws failing minority patients are just as dangerous as doctors blatantly refusing service. 

“Like other epidemics, structural racism is causing widespread suffering, not only for Black people and other communities of color but for our society as a whole,” Dr. Hardeman said.

What happens when one deadly pandemic meets another?

The novel coronavirus disproportionately affects Black and Native American communities, with higher cases and higher fatality rates reported amongst these populations.

“Researchers at Boston University found that 11 percent of Black adults and 18 percent of Native Americans had multiple risk factors putting them at high risk for a severe case of COVID-19, whereas this was true of only 8 percent of white subjects,” medical journalist Rachel Nania said in an article for an American Association for Retired People’s online health journal.

Moreover, previously undiagnosed health problems can exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 for those that were unable to receive adequate treatment in the past.

“More than 1 in 3 [34%] American Indian/Alaska Native adults and 27 percent of Black adults under age 65 are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions,” Nania said.

Despite these facts, minority representation is lacking in COVID-19 drug testing trials. Test groups for the up-and-coming drug Remdesavir are comprised almost entirely of white males. Again, excluding minorities from these settings directly puts their lives at risk.

“Racial and ethnic minority groups have so much to gain from this research, including the opportunity to receive lifesaving treatment,” Dr. Daniel Chastain said in The Journal for New England Medicine. “To provide the necessary data for generalizing efficacy and safety outcomes across racial groups, COVID-19 clinical trials must prioritize inclusion of patient populations that reflect the demographics of the ongoing pandemic.”

To graduate into the medical field, one must take the Hippocratic Oath, promising to do everything in their part to provide the best services to their patients. Within this oath, there lies a reminder that each doctor is a member of their society with “special obligations to all [their] fellow human beings.” To focus healthcare efforts on only white Americans is a violation of the moral code guiding medical professionals — an ethical wrongdoing and a crime against humanity.

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