My dad always looks forward to his doctor’s appointments. He intentionally books the final slot of the day to have extended time with his doctor. He knows the time will be used for more than just a check up, but an opportunity to catch up about their lives, families, and current events. His doctor is personable, funny, genuine, and most importantly Black.
A Black physician can make all the difference in the experience a Black patient has with the healthcare system. This is true on any given day, but has been heightened in the middle of a global health crisis.
Coronavirus has turned the world upside down. As everyone scrambles to get things back to normal, this virus is exposing the daily challenges Black people face with the healthcare system in this country. One of those challenges is the consistent denial from medical professionals of the physical pain that Black people endure.
In Brooklyn this month, a Black teacher was denied coronavirus testing three times. Now her life hangs in the balance. Rana Zoe Mungin is currently hooked up to a ventilator at Mount Sinai Hospital. At the first visit, the social studies teacher was given a shot and medicine for her symptoms. On the second and third time, she was rushed to the hospital via ambulance. She was not breathing during the third visit and was still refused coronavirus testing.
Early testing could have stopped the spread and expedited Mungin’s treatment, but medical professionals did not believe her. Just like thousands of Black women across the country, Mungin’s pain was underestimated because she is a Black woman.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black mothers die in childbirth at three or four times the rate of white mothers. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, many hospitals are restricting who will be allowed in the room when pregnant women are giving birth. Black women need as many advocates in the room as possible when in labor. This virus is stripping away the support expecting mothers need to get exactly what they deserve.
Researchers from the University of Virginia found that medical students and residents held erroneous beliefs about the biological differences between Black and White people. These inaccurate assumptions have caused inadequate treatment for Black people’s pain. More Black medical professionals would lessen the issue of invalidating the physical pain of Black people.
This narrative played out all too familiarly in the past season of the popular CW drama, All American. The main character, a Black boy, was shot and rushed to the hospital. While prepping for surgery, three medical professionals were in the room. The two non-Black medical professionals moved without urgency for the situation, but the one Black nurse advocated for him and said, “I wonder if he was a different patient would he have to wait.” It was her vocal advocacy throughout the process that helped the character survive. Patient advocacy is critical in this real life crisis too.
The nationwide statistics of the coronavirus infection and death rate by race and ethnicity is currently unknown. Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley called for comprehensive racial data in virus testing and treatment. In my home city of Milwaukee, it is clear this virus is hitting Black people the worst. The first eight people to die of complications from COVID-19 have been Black in Milwaukee County. In Wisconsin, there have been 15 deaths related to COVID-19. This shows that Black people account for over fifty percent of the deaths in the state, but are 6 percent of the state’s population. This is a major health disparity.
In order for the public to be more aware of these statistics city to city, a group of doctors in Virginia is calling for the CDC and the World Health Organization to release information about whether Black communities are being left behind in the coronavirus pandemic. Their concern is that minority communities are disproportionately losing out when it comes to access to testing. Black people are also particularly vulnerable to being infected with the virus because of high rates of disease and illnesses.
Even with these conditions, Black people have a long and justified history of distrust with the healthcare system, dating back to the Tuskegee experiment and the story of Henrietta Lacks. It is Black doctors that can begin to mend this broken bridge.
Currently, Black physicians are five percent of physicians in the United States. The barriers to medical school for Black students include economic hardships, lack of role models, entrance exams, and other difficulties that make it hard to begin and complete schooling. This leaves many Black patients on their own to battle with the racism that lives within the healthcare system.
Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that black men are more likely to feel comfortable and take medical cues from a doctor that looks like them. Research from the CDC showed that increased screening by a more diverse doctor workforce could close the gap in life expectancy between Black and white men.
These problems have always been here. The coronavirus has just pulled the curtains back from this broken system that does not value Black bodies. Black people deserve more doctors like the one my dad has. They deserve doctors who see them in their full humanity.
Photo Credit: Msuva Joseph