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How Racism is Embedded in the Healthcare System

With frequent news coverage regarding police brutality targeting African Americans as well as hate crimes inflicted on Asian Americans, it is no doubt that today’s world still experiences harsh manifestations of racism and bigotry. Prejudices based on erroneous racial perceptions are shockingly prevalent; therefore, minority groups continue to become victims of unreasonable attacks based on their skin color, history, and culture. Unfortunately, it is often forgotten that these also exist within hospital settings especially since health centers and clinics are believed to be safe havens that provide adequate and fair treatments to all.

Despite taking an oath to do no harm, some medical professionals have implicit biases, the tendency of unconsciously associating groups with prejudices and stereotypes. There are numerous stories about doctors and staff clinging to unreasonable misconceptions of minority groups. Incorrect diagnoses, denial of proper care, minimization of symptoms and pains, and reduced specialty referrals are some examples of what minority groups experience. Therefore, minority groups like African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, indigenous groups, and others often receive worse quality of care and outcomes compared to their white counterparts. They are also at a heightened risk of dying from preventable illnesses due to the lack of compassion within the hospital community.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

An infamous example of unjust treatment towards minority groups would be the Tuskegee Syphilis study which involved impoverished African-American men who contracted the aforementioned disease. The researchers informed them with false details of the study and the participants did not receive the proper effective course of treatment even if it became readily available already. This led to much pain and suffering as well as the unnecessary passing on of the disease to the successive generations of the participants. Due to the increased distrust in the healthcare system, this event resulted in the reduced speed and effectiveness of protocols that aimed to contain HIV and other related outbreaks.

Asian Hate

A more recent presentation of xenophobia in the medical world would be anti-Asian hate crimes, especially with the present-day COVID-19 pandemic. Asians are being wrongfully blamed for supposedly carrying and transmitting infectious diseases to the world. In addition, such viruses are being named after Asian countries which is problematic because this promotes racial and cultural stigma against Asians. It is disheartening to witness the prevalence of this type of bigotry in hospitals as Asian medical workers have to tolerate racist actions of prejudiced and ungrateful patients. They suffer degradation of human dignity just because of their ethnicity and facial features. In addition, some medical professionals like Filipino nurses migrate to America not only to earn a living for their families left in their home countries but also to provide aid to underserved communities. They serve a foreign country, yet this is the treatment that they receive.

Digital Discrimination

In the current generation, computers and other types of technology are utilized to easily manage the healthcare system and to organize the relevant data. However, it was discovered that such advancements are also capable of systematically discriminating against Black individuals. The algorithms assigned lower risk scores to Black patients compared to their white equivalents which entail a reduction in the referrals to specialized care. This was said to be based on the level of hospital costs and expenses in which white individuals had higher ones compared to the black patients. However, this may be associated with Black people having lower levels of trust in the healthcare system.

Outdated and Unsubstantiated Beliefs

There is a common misconception that when African-Americans enter the hospital and ask for pain medications, they are dealers or have substance abuse problems. In addition, some doctors believe that white patients are more cooperative than African-Americans which results in a lack of compassion towards their medical cases. Furthermore, selected medical textbooks contain erroneous and unsupported information regarding the supposed differences in the physiology of white patients and Black patients. The notion that Black patients have higher pain tolerances due to their thicker skin and lower sensitivity of nerve endings is still widespread and commonly used. Additionally, the representation and explanation of diseases on pigmented skin are inadequate which leads to incorrect diagnoses. For example, signs of inflammation may appear as red or pink on light skin but these would be violet or brown on dark skin. Therefore, medical professionals may miss and invalidate the indicators.

“To transform healthcare, we must acknowledge the trauma of systemic racism and work together to solve it.” - Peggy Maguire

As seen, it is essential to take the necessary steps to improve the situation. There must be modifications in the educational system because aspiring medical professionals must be trained using unbiased and objective practices. They may also attend seminars that help in identifying unconscious racial biases which is beneficial in changing how one views the world and influencing others to do the same. Additionally, textbooks utilized in medical schools must have adequate representation in terms of demonstrating how to properly diagnose diseases on pigmented skin. Furthermore, it would be worthwhile to practice open-mindedness and respect towards everyone, regardless of background and cultural differences.

Thank you for reading!

Oriana Tolentino



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