BLACK AND BLUE
For Black people in America, our relationship with doctors, hospitals, and the medical community as a whole, has always been complicated. Medical professionals, from the Tuskegee experiment researchers to Margaret Sanger, have a well-documented history of using black and brown bodies as their personal guinea pigs for their scientific discoveries. This complicated history, alongside the everyday racial biases that slant medical providers’ perceptions of their patients, are what cause many Black Americans to have general distrust in the healthcare system.
However, as illustrated by hashtags such as #TrustBlackWomen, this distrust can come both from black patients in regard their doctors, and from doctors in regard to the patient’s claims about their physical health and comfort. Black people are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured in comparison to their white counterparts and have an infant mortality rate that is more than double the white IMR. While many of these statistics are caused by other factors, such as lack of access or financial means to get consistent medical care, there is also another issue: lack of cultural competence and trust in people of color’s understanding of their own bodies.
Just as many Black Americans maintain a fear of doctors that is rooted in the past, many doctors hold unconscious biases that are based in Black stereotypes from yesteryear. For example, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “African–Americans, compared to non-Hispanic whites, suffer a greater burden of pain and pain-related suffering.” This pain is due to the consistent practice of under-prescribing pain medication to Black patients, which is likely a result of the outdated belief that originated during slavery, which held that that Black people had a higher tolerance for pain, or that they simply could not feel pain at all. While most healthcare providers likely do not intend to inflict these biases on their patients, they often do.
In another study published by NCBI, research was done on white medical students and residents to analyze their racial biases and stereotypes. It found “evidence that racial bias in pain perception is associated with racial bias in pain treatment recommendations” and “that false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites continue to shape the way we perceive and treat black people—they are associated with racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment recommendations.” However, third year medical students and residents tended to hold less false beliefs about Black patients and the differences between black and white people, which may lend some hope that these biases can be unlearned through culturally accurate medical education.
Overall, the American healthcare system has unfortunately not yet established itself as a system that provides equal care to all of its patients, with rampant biases and a lack of medical research that includes people of color (only 5% of participants in medical research are people of color). But that does not mean that things have to stay this way. We must challenge our healthcare providers and medical researchers to take the time to understand our bodies, and challenge ourselves to trust our bodies and the ones who take care of them in good faith.