The 2022 theme for Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness” which is a topic much in need of attention. Racial bias persists in healthcare today, creating disparities in the delivery of health care services at all levels, from the general practitioners to the largest medical institutions. The history of Black people includes so many men and women healthcare professionals, scientists, and innovators who achieved remarkable results, and yet bias towards people of color continues to create barriers to achieving health equity in American society. Underserved communities remain underserved. Black patients often do not get the same level of quality healthcare compared to non-Black people and are less likely to receive treatment for medical issues like cardiovascular disease.
It is difficult to comprehend how the health of Black women and men remains unequal to the health of White people today. It is the power of bias. Past unjust treatment of people who are nonwhite has created a lot of distrust of government health services, but a renewed focus on Black health and wellness will bring into the light the real issues and the need for change. They are complex issues too.
For example, African-Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population and less than four percent of practicing physicians. The complexity is seen in various ways. Black patients get better healthcare services from Black doctors, but in 2019-2020 the enrollment of Black males in medical school is at 2.9 percent which is lower than the enrollment in 1978-1979 at 3.1 percent. The lack of Black doctors and medical students is the result of a mixture of issues, including education inequities in Black schools, a need for more role models, and higher education medical programs in which Blacks feel isolated. Bias creates a maze of barriers for Black people.
Black people have a shorter lifespan than White people; receive lower quality treatments for diseases; and are more likely to receive severe treatments like limb amputation. The CDC says Black COVID patients are 12 times more likely to die from the coronavirus due to underlying health conditions. A disproportionate number of Blacks live in poverty (22 percent), and poverty affects mental health. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that Black or African Americans living below the poverty level are twice as likely to report serious mental distress. Yet, research has shown they receive substantially less treatment compared to non-Hispanic Whites.
The current state of the healthcare system in regards to delivering unequal services to the Black population is, without a doubt, due to systemic racism. Anyone who has studied entrenched racism in institutions and systems understands how difficult it is to eradicate it. There is hope though, thanks to Black medical professionals rising to the top of critical healthcare institutions and practicing physicians who can bring change to the frontline of healthcare. It is physicians, like Dr. Rhea Boyd advocating for diversifying work forces in healthcare systems and making bias training part of medical programs, who deeply believe health equity is possible by changing institutional practices.
Black History Month generates open discussion about the Black healthcare crisis. Society must be fully aware and educated if the situation is to improve because some things, like the number of Black doctors, will take time to improve. The very good news is there are many minority leaders in top healthcare positions today who are leveraging their positions to drive change.
Dr. Jerome Adams is U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis is President and CEO of Craig Hospital. Dr. Garth Graham is the Director and Global Head of Healthcare and Public Health at Google/YouTube. Dr. Patrice Harris was the 2020-2021 President of the American Medical Association. Dr. Ana Pujols McKee is the Executive Vice-President and Chief Medical Officer, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer of The Joint Commission. Black healthcare change agents are in high level government, corporate and association positions. There are also thousands of unheralded Black medical professionals quietly delivering healthcare services in inner cities, rural areas and other underserved communities. They heal, advocate, and remind us that we are each a member of humanity.
Black History Month educates people on the truth, but it also serves as an inspiration for the younger generations and for bringing real change. It is not just a month for talking about change. It is a month for initiating change long overdue.