Author: Anusha Ghosh, Greenville Technical Charter High School '21
In the 20th century, a man named J. Marion Sims performed over 30 surgeries on enslaved Black women. These experiments were reported to have been done without any anesthesia or consent. As Bettina Judd, assistant professor at the University of Washington notes, "Sims understood enslaved women not to have the same pain threshold as white women. Through his texts and medical practice, you can see how he enacted that, (conducting) these horrendous experiments on Black women."
Regardless, today, he is widely regarded as the "father of modern gynecology." However, his legacy is not just continued through instruments and procedures, but through racial biases that are still being acted upon.
A 2016 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a substantial number of medical students and residents hold false beliefs about the biological differences between Black and White patients that "predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy."
As a result, the American Journal of Public Health finds that approximately two-thirds of doctors exhibit racial biases toward patients. This translates into Black patients often receiving lower-quality care, as doctors are more likely to dominate conversations, pay less attention to their patients' personal and psychosocial needs, and, overall, take Black patients' pain less seriously.
These racial biases are reflected in several settings. A study by the National Library of Medicine found that Black patients are more likely than White patients to receive significantly lower triage scores for the same complaints, and a study by the University of Michigan found that Black patients are more likely to receive less than half the medication as White patients for the same injuries in pain clinics.
However, an increasingly serious issue is that of Black women patients- the same population Sims experimented on. As the American Journal of Public Health notes, Black mothers are roughly 3 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white mothers.
The reasons why are almost all preventable and related to systemic racism.
As Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard University, explains, "Basically, black women are undervalued. They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed."
A 2014 study from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that Black-serving hospitals have drastically higher rates of maternal complications than other hospitals, and that they perform worse on 12 of 15 birth outcomes, including elective deliveries, non-elective births, and maternal mortality.
Another 2018 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that Black women rarely receive quality contraceptive care and counseling. For example, the study outlines how Black women are less likely than White or Hispanic women to receive any postpartum contraception, and when they do, they are less likely to receive a highly effective method.
Stories by even one of the most successful and celebrated celebrities, Serena Williams, show racial biases towards Black mothers. Serena Williams had experienced a pulmonary embolism a day after giving birth to her daughter through a cesarean section. However, when she alerted employees, they initially dismissed her concerns and wasted crucial time before diagnosing and treating her.
Racial bias in healthcare does not just exist on the patient end of the spectrum, however. Just under 6% of doctors and surgeons are Black, according to the Census Bureau. Black doctors are crucial because as a 2019 study from the American Economic Review finds, Black patients receive better care when treated by Black doctors, receiving 34% more preventive services.
Moreover, names like J. Marion Sims are celebrated nearly everywhere, in textbooks and monuments alike. However, many of the contributions of African Americans are historically left out of history books and go unrecognized.
Here's a small sample of the brightest Black medical minds, trailblazers, and contributors in history:
Henrietta Lacks, the first-ever recorded patient with an immortalized human cell line, who had her samples taken without consent or recognition that were used to develop the polio vaccine and expand research on cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.
Patricia Bath, the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African American woman physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improved the treatment of cataracts (cloudy lens).
Alexa Canady, the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the U.S and recipient of the American Medical Women's Association President's Award.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman physician in the U.S. and the first and only African American graduate of the New England Female Medical College.
Joycelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon General, and advocate for early sex education, drug education, and contraception distribution in schools.
Black Lives Matter, and the healthcare field is no exception. Let's begin to hold the healthcare field accountable just as we are with law enforcement, and prevent false racial biases.
Graphic courtesy of Brian Stauffer