Racism in the Field of Medicine
“In recent years, the debate surrounding racism has made a large resurgence. While the ‘new’ racism is partially fueled by the presidential election, the subsequent fight against it and the debate about it are both caused by the weight and power that racism holds over the world. One aspect that is often overlooked is racism in the medical field. Whether it be receiving good healthcare, diagnosing mental health, being prescribed the right medicine, or the treatment that minorities received in the past.
Over the past century, there have been life-changing advancements in the medical field. Vaccines, stem cell therapy, organ transplants, and the new understanding of how mental disorders work are all good examples. Also, there have been improvements in insurance, which allows people to afford the medicine and surgeries that they need. However, there is one thing that hasn’t changed: the treatment of people of color, namely African American women. A key example of this would be breast cancer. African American women have a 39% higher breast cancer mortality rate than white women even though the two groups are equally likely to get it in the first place (American Cancer Society). And it’s not just breast cancer; according to the American Cancer Society “African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers”. Also, according to the American Psychiatric Association,“Death rate for African Americans is higher than whites for heart diseases, strokes, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.” One possible cause could be a lack of health insurance. A recent study determined that a lack of health insurance was the cause of 35% of the excess mortality risk for African American women. It makes sense; if someone does not have health insurance, then it’s almost impossible for them to pay for all of the necessary treatments that come with cancer, whether it be breast cancer or prostate cancer. But these statistics form another question: What is causing the lack of health care for these minorities?
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It’s likely that –unsurprisingly- race is part of the equation. Forbes reports that 35% of Latinos reported difficulties receiving the health care that they need. While no statistics were reported for African Americans in that study, many have turned to social media to share their stories. Often, they aren’t given access to the care they need, and programs like Medicaid and Medicare fail to cover the costs of their prescription medicines and any additional treatments that they may require. Also, they are less likely to even be offered any screenings that they might be searching for, or even completely denied (BreastCancer.org). Even when Medicaid does cover the costs, individuals complain of subpar care and frequent delays in necessary appointments. A similar story is told in the non-fiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in which Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who is more commonly known as HeLa, dies of cervical cancer due to improper care that she could barely afford. While a bias like that in healthcare may not affect everyday life, it can be life-ending if someone needs certain treatments. It is a serious issue that needs to be addressed within the racism debate. It is sad to say that, while medical advancements have been made since Henrietta’s life in the 1940s, the treatment of minorities is still severely lacking.
Although mental health is sometimes seen as less important when compared to physical health, both are equally important when it comes to staying healthy. When someone has a mental illness, it is necessary for them to receive proper treatment or else they will continue to have issues in their day to day lives. According to Mental Health America, mental illnesses affect about 16% of all African Americans, which is 6.8 million people. However, only ? of these people receive the care that they need. While many obstacles prevent proper treatment and rehabilitation, the most prominent obstacle would be a lack of proper care.“Rates of mental illnesses in African Americans are similar with those of the general population. However, disparities exist in regard to mental health care services. African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care” (American Psychiatric Association). If a doctor does not give the same level of care to an African American patient as they would to a white patient, then the African American patient will most likely suffer.
This discrepancy in care has an obvious solution: stop being racist! Of course, there are some problems that do not entirely fall on the doctor’s shoulder, such as a stigma around mental illnesses. According to author and director Hafeez Baoku,”In the black community, there is a negative stigma surrounding mental health. Instead of seeking professional help for conditions such as depression and anxiety, many in the community resort to self-medication or isolation in an attempt to solve their problems on their own. This issue of masking pain is especially prevalent amongst black men.” If one is unable to talk about their issues or even seek help, they will be affected even more. Stigma is a serious problem within the community and needs to be addressed in order to help those with mental illnesses. Often, black men feel like they can not express their emotions or talk about their problems, which can create even more problems. A lack of information is also a legitimate problem. If one is misinformed about what treatment options are available or even where to receive basic help for their mental illness, then they’ll have no way getting the help that they need. Overall, mental illness is a complicated issue for African Americans, and can’t be solved with just one solution.
Medicine is essential when it comes to regaining health. It is the foundation of all medical treatments. It is virtually impossible for one to get better if they do not have access to the proper medicines that they require. But according to a study by the Department of Family Medicine at University of Virginia African American patients are not receiving the same level of care as white patients. “Research shows that, relative to white patients, black patients are less likely to be given pain medications and, if given pain medications, they receive lower quantities. A study of nearly one million children diagnosed with appendicitis revealed that, relative to white patients, black patients were less likely to receive any pain medication for moderate pain and were less likely to receive opioids—the appropriate treatment—for severe pain.” The prejudice exhibited by doctors is preventing these patients from getting better. Sure, these patients will still recover, but if they are not receiving the same care with the same level of medications, their recovery will take longer and the pain they experience while they are recovering will be greater. It is especially ridiculous that doctors are wary about prescribing opioids since the rate of opioid overdose for African Americans (6.6%) is less than half of that for whites (13.9%). Christopher Ervin, an advisor to the Black Women’s Health Imperative Advocacy Group states that, “ There is a history of assuming black people are more likely to be addicts, so even if they receive adequate pain treatment in the emergency room, they may not receive a prescription for it once they are discharged.” Even though doctors are supposed to be unbiased and provide equal services to all, there is a serious issue within the medical community when it comes to racism. In January 2019, there was a controversy involving the DNA pioneer James Watson after he repeatedly made comments claiming that the genetics of African Americans proved that they had lower intelligence, even though evidence suggested otherwise. The stereotypes held by doctors are harmful to black patients and they need to be removed from both professional environments and the entire world.
There are many instance of past racism in medical research, the problem is that they often are swept under the rug. Of course, this is a general problem in racism, but since the focus of this essay is the medical field, the focus won’t be swayed. One example of this would be the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In short, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to see what would happen if syphilis went untreated. In 1932, they gathered a group of 600 black men, 399 of which had already contracted the disease, and told them that they would be treated for “bad blood”. None of the men were ever told they had syphilis, and none of them were given any medicine to help with the disease. Even after penicillin was discovered as an effective tool for fighting syphilis, none of the men were ever treated. Although the experiment lost funding, it still continued for 40 years. By the termination of the project in 1972, only 74 of the test subjects were still alive. And while Bill Clinton did apologize on behalf of the United States in 1977, the experiments have barely been mentioned ever since. The topic is barely, if at all, mentioned in school textbooks, and while it is known of, the experiments and their lasting consequences are rarely discussed. Another example of black people being used for medical research without consent would be the slaves that were experimented on by James Sims. Also known as the ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’, Sims perfected his surgery techniques on slaves that his friends ‘loaned’ him. He never used anesthesia due to his belief that African Americans didn’t experience pain like white people did.
One of the slaves, Anarcha, was operated on 13 times. His experiments were condemned in the early 20th century, but today some people claim that he didn’t do anything wrong, since he was technically following the medical rules of his time period. Some even say that the women consented to it, using ‘evidence’ from Sims’ journal, where he wrote that the women “clamoured” to be performed on. In 2018, a statue honoring Sims and his research was removed from Central Park. Still, the debate continues. Last but not least, there is Henrietta Lacks. As mentioned in the first paragraph, Henrietta was a poor black woman living in Maryland. And when she felt a lump inside of her, Henrietta had only one place to turn for serious medical help: John Hopkins Hospital. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but during the check-up doctors took a sample of her cells without any consent. Henrietta eventually died of cervical cancer after receiving supar medical care due to the fact that she was African American. Her cells, however, lived on. They became the first immortal cells.
Her cells, sold by the vial, helped pioneer some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Everything from the polio vaccine to gene therapy was made possible because of Henrietta’s cells. Yet no fame or fortune came to her or her impoverished family. The only identifier on the original vial of cells was the first two letters of her first and last name: HeLa. And that’s what she became known as. For a long time, no one knew her name. It was only recently, with the publishing of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, that her story was told. Her family, to this day, remains destitute, although her cells now sell for $250 at the cheapest. She too, was swept under the rug. It’s ways like this that racism takes hold of so many lives. All of these experiments were about using what was viewed as ‘inferior’. Taking advantage of the vulnerable had no costs. It may not directly affect people now, but the desperate attempts to hide these events sure do. It proves the idea that people don’t want to acknowledge the past; they’d rather believe that racism hasn’t existed in a long, long time. But that’s what keeps racism alive.
Racism is still a serious problem. It is still visible within the medical community, and that’s something that needs to change. Eliminating racism from medicine is obviously not going to make healthcare better for white people. But that’s not the point. The purpose of eliminating racism is making things better for those that are affected by racism. There shouldn’t have to be an incentive to make the world better; just do it.”