There is a Black and White divide in American medicine. COVID-19 is hitting African Americans and other minority ethnic groups hard, creating a renewed focus on long-standing inequalities in America’s healthcare system. African Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID. Research shows that African Americans are most likely to be affected by cancer to prenatal care but less likely to receive the correct treatment. The inequalities stem from structural and evident racism that goes back decades and centuries.
Throughout history, the basis of medical racism is a false belief that there are biological differences between the bodies of African Americans and white people. Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many of them believed erroneous physiological differences between the two races. The examples included that African Americans have a higher penchant for pain because their nerve endings are less sensitive, or African Americans’ blood coagulates quicker than white people. The quiz found that at least half of the medical students and residents found the false statements presented as accurate.
Mislead and Disinformation- ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’
The United States Public Health Service (USPHS) enlisted 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama, to participate in a syphilis experiment. They were unaware that they were being used to observe untreated syphilis in Black populations. USPHS told them they were being treated for bad blood but did not receive any treatment. Many of the participants experienced blindness, mental impairment, and death. Government agencies could have put a stop to this heinous experiment but did not. It was not until 1972 that the study was exposed and shut down. As a result, many African Americans have developed a deep mistrust of the healthcare system and vaccines.
Experimentation without Consent – ‘Henrietta Lacks’ and the ‘Mothers of American Gynecology-Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey’
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year old African- American woman, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in a segregated ward of John Hopkins Hospital. Without permission from her family, her cells were cultured on a mass scale and used in experiments. The cells continue to be instrumental to medical breakthroughs, such as a polio vaccine, oncology treatments, and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Her cells generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her cells.
J’ Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of American gynecology,” designed the vaginal speculum and developed a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula (VVF). VVF interfered with the labor of slave women and future reproductive capability. Sims devoted four years to experiment on 14 slaves, including an enslaved woman named Anarcha, in which he performed 30 experimental procedures without consent.
Racist Medical Treatment in the 21st Century – A Black Doctor Dies after Complaining of Racist Treatment and Digital Discrimination
Dr. Susan Moore, an African American woman, complained of racist medical treatment in many social media posts. Last month Dr. Moore was admitted to IU Health North Hospital in Carmel, Indiana, diagnosed with COVID-19. Being a physician acutely aware of her condition and procedures, she repeatedly asked for medication, scans, and routine checks. A white doctor dismissed her pain.
“I put forth and maintain if I was white, I would not have to go through that,” Dr. Moore says woefully in a December 4 video. “This is how Black people get killed when you send them home, and they do not know how to fight for themselves.”
IU Health sent Dr. Moore home, and 12 hours later, she was back in a different hospital with a temperature spike and a drop in blood pressure. Dr. Moore’s condition worsened and the hospital put her on a ventilator. She died on December 20.
Algorithms for medical software and systems are also discriminatory. According to research published in the journal Science, people who self-identified as African American were given lower risk scores, despite being more ill than their white counterparts. These scores lead to fewer referrals for medical care.
Racism still entrenches America’s healthcare system. The current healthcare system needs to recognize the racism that accompanied past medical achievements.
American medicine was built on the backs of slaves and even now affects how doctors treat African Americans.
Kelly Washington is a freelance writer living on the Southside of Chicago. You can follow her on LinkedIn or on social media at BlackBFly7 (Twitter).