Health care inequality is killing Black patients - GulfToday

Health care inequality is killing Black patients

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Picture used for illustrative purpose only.

Robert Pearl, Tribune News Service

In 2020, one of the most chaotic strings of events in US history occurred in just a matter of months. As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged homes and hospitals, and as communities and businesses began to feel unprecedented economic pressure, and as a contentious presidential election loomed, and as the push for racial justice in America intensified, the cracks in the country’s foundation grew wider and more visible.

As one online commentator put it, “Imagine living through the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement ... all at once.”

During the mass demonstrations that followed the police killing of George Floyd, politicians and TV pundits voiced concerns that large gatherings of mostly unmasked people could lead to further outbreaks of the coronavirus. Health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading immunologists, agreed: “When you get congregations like we saw with the demonstrations, that’s taking a risk.” Even the World Health Organization weighed in, supporting the protests while asking demonstrators to exercise caution by wearing masks.

There was, in that moment, a strange convergence of seemingly unrelated events: A global pandemic, which was affecting the health of millions of people, was suddenly sharing airtime with protests against the unequal treatment of African Americans. And as the two biggest storylines of 2020 briefly overlapped, one of the greatest medical threats to human life at the time was being ignored.

The connective tissue, which bound the pandemic with the protests, was institutional racism. Contrary to what commentators chose to discuss, marches against inequality did not threaten the African American community’s health nearly as much as the inequality that already existed in US medicine. Consider the disparities of the disease in question. African Americans comprise 13% of the US population but accounted for a quarter of the country’s COVID-19 deaths in 2020. In fact, when corrected for discrepancies in age, the mortality rate for Black people was more than double that of their white counterparts.

Present this data to doctors, and their first response is to blame socioeconomic factors like income and education, elements that exist outside of their offices and medical practices. No doubt, social and economic undercurrents help explain higher rates of coronavirus deaths among African Americans. Racial minority groups are more likely to work essential (front-line) jobs, live in more congested neighborhoods, and have unequal health insurance coverage. Indeed, all of these factors contribute to poorer health outcomes.

Dive a level deeper, however, and it becomes clear that Black patients also suffer higher rates of prejudice and mistreatment in U.S. hospitals, clinics, and physician offices, driving up their risk of death. As an example, billing data showed that African American patients who came to the emergency room with symptoms of COVID-19 (including cough and fever) were far less likely to be tested than white patients with similar symptoms. This doesn’t make any sense. With Black patients twice as likely to die from the disease, the logical response would be for doctors to test African American individuals more, not less. But when faced with a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits, a disproportionate number was used on white patients.

In the early days of the pandemic, when emergency rooms had to ration testing kits, doctors could perform only two or three tests per eight-hour shift. In the frenzy, and amid the fear of losing a truly sick patient, doctors saved those kits for the candidates they deemed most deserving. This quick-fire deciding process played out at a subconscious level and, more often than not, the patients who were chosen were the ones who looked most like the doctors.

In the culture of medicine, doctors believe they treat all patients the same. The data presented here indicates otherwise. When presented with evidence of racial bias, physicians point to flaws in society as the reason Black patients experience poorer health. They insist that social determinants (where people are born, raised, work, play and socialise) along with social dynamics (such as racial segregation, poverty and educational barriers) are to blame — not doctors. As in so much of American health care, the systemic and cultural issues are intertwined. In this century, expressions of racism in medicine have become less obvious and more statistical.

For example, one reason African Americans have died at twice the rate of white patients from COVID-19 is that Black people have statistically higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease than other groups. When not properly controlled, these are three of the medical problems shown to worsen the severity of COVID-19 and increase a patient’s chances of dying. The prevalence of these chronic diseases can be attributed, in part, to diet and stress, but much of the problem results from poorer medical care provided by doctors. Overall, the average Black patient receives $1,800 less per year in total medical care than a white person with the same set of health problems.

As a consequence, African Americans experience 30 to 40% worse health outcomes than white Americans, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to health. And that’s a reflection of how doctors practice.

In a culture that believes all patients are treated as equals, white physicians fail to recognize how often Black patients are treated as other. A powerful example occurs when Black patients go to the doctor in pain. Research shows that, compared to white patients, Black patients are 40% less likely to receive medication to ease their discomfort after surgery.

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