Howard University Multicultural Media Academy in partnership with the Dow Jones News Fund

Systemic Racism Is a Health Care Issue

By Zach Williams

Racism is a thing black people experience in there every day lives. It is seen in sports, its seen in politics, and it is even seen in healthcare. Systemic racism is a real threat to the black community and how they receive healthcare. It all starts with health myths about black people. These myths were started long ago during the times of slavery to justify it in the eyes of the white slave owners.

One of less known health myths is that black people have inferior lungs than white people. According to author Linda Villarosa, this myth was created to “justify slavery but also to say slavery was beneficial to enslave people because all that exercise and the forced labor was building up the lungs”. This myth leads to a race correction for black people in all lung related diseases.

Another more known health myth is that black people have a higher pain tolerance than white people. This myth was created to justify the torcher and beatings of slaves. This myth is still largely believed by medical professionals in present times because “a 2016 study of doctors and residents found [out what] residents and doctors [believed]when asked about different kinds of pain and this study showed that the residents and doctors believed “that black people had less sensitivity” to pain than white people. This effects the way black people’s pain is managed in a healthcare setting.

Another myth is that black people had certain immunities to some illnesses. This myth was created as a way of not treating black people who had certain illnesses and to justify why black people were not getting certain European diseases. A myth as dangerous at that could lead to black people not getting proper care for diseases because they believe they will just get better. 

These health myths are one of the main causes of systemic racism in healthcare because these myths are believed by medical professionals. A study of white medical students was done to see how many believed in certain health myths. Fourth- year residency students still believed things like black people have a higher pain tolerance than white people.

This could lead these future medical professionals to have stigma towards their black patients and have a difference in how they treat them versus their white patients. Health myths can also lead towards many things as it pertains to black health. One thing it leads to is a lower life expectancy rate. According to Medical New Today, in 2014, Black males and females had lower average life expectancies than white males and females. This predominantly has to do with the fact that 20% of black adults could not access health insurance. Also, a 2012 study also found that black zip codes were 67% more likely to have a shortage of primary care physicians.

Systemic racism in healthcare also leads to low rates of vaccinations in the black community. That pertains to past vaccines like the influenza vaccination and present vaccines like the Covid-19 vaccine. With the influenza vaccine, in 2014, only 60% of Black and people aged 65 or over got a vaccination, compared to 70% of white people of the same age. Even though the CDC only knows 57% of the races of the people who got the Covid vaccine, only 9% of that were black people whereas 61% of that was white people. 

Camille Williams can attest to racism in health care. She is a college student with Diamond Blackfan Anemia. During her 11 years of being treated for this disease, she has been “dealing with various treatments and numerous hospital visits.” Since the 8th grade for Camille, she had been treated in Houston but when she got into Clark Atlanta, she had to move to Emory hospital. The people at Emory hospital did not take her pain seriously and did not care for her as much as the doctors in Houston. Their poor service forced her to move from an Atlanta HBCU back to her home to attend HBCU. After her experience she is “trying to advocate for myself and my health within a system that doesn’t recognize or take seriously the pain black women can and do go through”.

Even though there is systemic racism in healthcare, which leads to several health issues for black people, there are things being done to remedy that. One of the major things that is being done id trying to pair black patients with black doctors. According to Shaktar Vedantam and Mr. Garrick “Black doctors were about 50% more effective than nonblack doctors at getting black men to get a flu shot”. They also found “the black doctors actually wrote more notes compared to the nonblack doctors about their patients, and often those notes talked about their non-health care issues”.

This shows that the black doctor would be more effective in treating a black patient and more effective in creating a personal relationship with the patient. Personal relationships help patients feel safer with a doctor and it is easier for people to feel more connected with people of their same race. This can also help make doctors more effective with you as shown when “researchers found that Florida patients assigned to physicians of their own race were 13% less likely to die while in the hospital”. Something so simple like getting a different doctor could go a long way as it pertains to your health.  

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