Minority health care needs a check-up. Health disparities can and do kill people. Directly or in a way so subtle it is nearly impossible to quantify, unequal care creates health disparities for 47.2 million African Americans. Experiencing even a single instance of biased care signals the quality and effectiveness of the treatment has been compromised.
The consequences of unequal treatment can be chronic or acute, triggering long- or short-term illness. A patient given biased care may grow sicker, never fully recover, or die. Eliminating health disparities is an urgent public health imperative that cannot be ignored without great cost to every member of society.
By broad definition, racial health disparities refer to the differences in medical outcomes between different racial and ethnic groups. These disparities can manifest in various ways, including differences in access to healthcare, disease incidence and prevalence, disease outcomes and overall health status.
It is fair to say that racial health disparities in America are the result of systemic and structural inequities disproportionately affecting the lives of virtually all Black people, rich or poor. Based on race and ethnicity, health disparity in America aligns with the country’s “peculiar” institution of slavery. There are numerous examples where high income or celebrity did not prevent a Black patient from receiving biased care.
Black actress Tisha Campbell-Martin, best known for her roles in “Martin” and “My Wife and Kids,” has spoken out about her struggles with sarcoidosis, a disease that affects the lungs and lymph nodes. She said that doctors often dismissed her symptoms and did not take her concerns seriously, which delayed her diagnosis and treatment.
Michael Jai White, actor and martial artist has spoken out about his experience with prostate cancer. He has said that doctors initially dismissed his symptoms and did not take his concerns seriously because he was a Black man. White eventually had to seek treatment outside of the United States to get the care he needed.
Beyoncé in her 2020 visual album “Black is King,” revealed that she suffered from toxemia during her pregnancy with her twins, which required an emergency c-section. She has said that her healthcare providers did not take her concerns seriously and that she had to advocate for herself to receive proper care.
There is a common thread for all these incidents of biased care: a failure to listen and take the patient’s concerns seriously. Very few Black people, rich or poor can say they or a loved one has never experienced unequal health care.
The Brookings Institution, considered to be a leader in the research and discussion to eliminate health disparities has published several studies on racial health disparities. One recent study, “Understanding Disparities in Health Care,” analyzes the causes of racial disparities in health care and offers policy recommendations to address these disparities.
The study says, “poor communication is a failing of the system not the patient.” The need for good communications goes beyond language. “Being sensitive to cultural differences is important from physicians appreciating ways in which lifestyle and culture can influence the effectiveness of treatment plans to understanding conventions about eye contact during exams.”
The Brookings report references a recent Oakland California study that found when Black men were assigned a Black physician, the doctors were 50 percent more effective in getting the patient to agree to preventive testing and vaccines.
Here’s the positive news, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), enrollment at HBCU medical schools increased by 15.5% from 2017 to 2020. Additionally, in 2020, the number of Black students enrolled in US medical schools reached an all-time high, with HBCUs accounting for a significant portion of that growth.
There are many symptoms of biased health care. Here are seven:
- Unequal treatment: Patients receive different treatment or care depending on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics.
- Stereotyping: Healthcare providers may make assumptions or stereotype patients based on their personal characteristics, leading to inaccurate diagnoses or treatment recommendations.
- Lack of cultural competency: Healthcare providers may not understand or be sensitive to the cultural beliefs or practices of patients, which can lead to misunderstandings or inadequate care.
- Language barriers: Patients who do not speak the same language as their healthcare provider may not receive adequate information or explanations about their care.
- Unintentional bias: Healthcare providers may unconsciously hold biases or prejudices that affect their interactions with patients.
- Inadequate access to care: Patients who belong to certain groups may face barriers to accessing healthcare, such as lack of insurance or transportation.
- Poor communication: Patients may not receive clear or complete information about their care, or they may not feel comfortable communicating with their healthcare provider due to perceived biases or lack of trust.