Racial inequity in the American healthcare system has long been documented. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine released a report showing that racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. were less likely to receive preventative healthcare. The same reporting also outlined the fact that minorities were also less likely to receive quality healthcare, regardless of socioeconomic factors like income, insurance type, and neighborhood. This report was just one of the many reports which highlighted this issue.
From 2009 to 2012, the American Cancer Society reviewed the incidences of breast cancer in 100,000 women. The findings in the report were astounding. The report found that while black women were diagnosed with breast cancer at a lower rate than white women, the mortality rates for black women were significantly worse. Black women were found to have a five-year survival rate at around 80 percent, while their white counterparts were at 91 percent.
Some data suggests that black women were diagnosed at a later stage even when reports show those women have asked for a referral to specialists in the same stage ranges as their white counterparts.
As it pertains to the recent Coronavirus efforts, the access to tests and testing sites in areas more commonly lived in by blacks pales in comparison to those of whites. Data available via the Illinois state website indicates that although 37 percent of the state’s residents are black, in the earlier weeks of the pandemic, only 13 percent of the state’s available tests were received by black people. These figures represent a fundamental issue with our healthcare system.
Black people are not receiving equitable healthcare. One of the most concerning factors is how the combination of these disparities impact medical advancements overall. Many findings show black patients consistently reporting higher levels of distrust of health institutions and medical doctors than white patients. The reasoning behind this distrust is valid.
From the Antebellum period to the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” black people have been on the receiving end of racist and unethical medical practices scaling the history of American medicine, and this distrust has all but defined the collective perception of healthcare in America for minorities. Many studies are reporting the level of difficulty involved in gaining black participants for Coronavirus vaccination trials for this very reason, and however valid the reasoning behind the distrust, the future of everyone hangs in the balance.
Just this week, the CDC announced that America has hit a previously unthought-of milestone. Over 7.16 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, while 200,000 have died as a result of the virus. Black people are 3.4 times more likely to die from the virus than their racial and ethnic counterparts. This means that without access to equitable healthcare and a vaccination, black people will continue to face mortality rates which surpass their rate of population. This also means the development of an adequate vaccination requires black participation in clinical trials.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities are stepping in to help inform the public on this need as well as to act as trusted institutions able to amend the weakened relationship between black people and the medical community. Meharry Medical College in Nashville Tennessee is an example. Researchers of the HBCU have begun conducting face-to-face meetings with current patients to discuss the opportunities associated with clinical trial participation.
Also, HBCU presidents, Walter M. Kimbrough of Dillard University and C. Reynold Verret of the Xavier University of Louisiana went public with their decision to participate in clinical trials. Many people expressed outrage at the notion. Some argued that the racial divide has become increasingly magnified under the leadership of our current president, and how now may not be the time to encourage the idea of black involvement in medical experimentations.
Despite the significant backlash following their announcement, they went on to pen an open letter to students stating “Overcoming the virus will require the availability of vaccines effective for all peoples in our communities, especially our Black and brown neighbors. . . It is of the utmost importance that a significant number of Black and brown subjects participate so that the effectiveness of these vaccines be understood across the many diverse populations that comprise these United States.”
No matter the weight carried with the history, science agrees. Black participation is directly correlated to our ability to develop a vaccine for all. The contributions and sacrifices black people have made to American science and medicine are beyond quantification and it will require progressive, corrective, and collective action from the community to ensure we all benefit from it. Otherwise, our efforts to combat Covid-19 may be thwarted.
As former president Bill Clinton stated in his reference to the distrust created by racism in his 1997 apology speech to the survivors of the Tuskegee experiment, “This impedes efforts to conduct promising research and to provide the best health care to all our people, including African Americans.”