Written by Claudia Ugbana
Kira Johnson, Serena Williams and Dr. Dana-Ain Davis tell us we need to do better in eradicating racial disparities within healthcare.
Following its usual Tuesday airtime, Fox’s “The Resident” aired a particularly interesting and frightening episode representing the reality of what we know as racial bias within our healthcare system. What I assumed to be a fictional narrative of racial bias--that turned into the death of a new mother-- ended up being a narrative of a real-life incident. In April 2016, Kira Johnson died on an operating table at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
It was reported that Johnson’s husband, Charles Johnson IV, repeatedly asked nurses and doctors to perform tests on his wife, who was described as “shaking vigorously, sensitive to touch and in and out of consciousness.” Hours after he continued to alert nurses and doctors of his wife’s worsening condition, Kira Johnson was pronounced dead on an operating table, her belly filled with blood.
When individuals ask what racism in the healthcare industry means, I frequently reference the story of Kira Johnson, who died merely 12 hours after she had given birth, simply because she was Black.
In order to treat patients, physicians must acquire a knowledge beyond the scope of what illness or disease they are hoping to treat. In order to properly care for those patients, a physician-patient bond must be formed-- and transcend the usual routine of assessing every patient as though they are the same-- in order to properly care for those patients. This knowledge is simply not there.
Current incoming healthcare practitioners are not informed about the differences of maternal risks posed against Black mothers, and medical school does not teach about the mortality rates among Black men with diabetes. However, history informs us of the many experimental procedures carried out against the will of Black individuals for the greater good of science. The vaccine of smallpox originated from the beloved President Jefferson, who injected his Black slaves with cowpox in order to determine its immunity. The first successful operation of vaginal fistulas, a condition connecting a woman’s vagina to one of her abdominal organs, was performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims; an Alabama surgeon well known for his experimental procedures on Black slave women.
America is well aware of its systemic injustices against people of color. Current laws allow the privilege to request doctors who are not people of color, or of a certain faith or religion. Its systems protect doctors who make life or death decisions regarding their patients based on the color of their skin.
This urges society to ask questions beyond why we have all allowed this to happen, but to ask how history has brought us to where we are now.
Not enough knowledge on the matter
Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the City University of New York, Dana-Ain Davis, recently published a novel on reproductive injustice within healthcare. Davis’ book focused primarily on the medical profession directing more efforts toward discrimination and less on equipping the system with knowledge regarding how to properly care for Black pregnant patients.
Davis’ work analyzed health disparities among wealthy and socially dominant Black women to illustrate the idea that rich, cultured and educated Black women are equally likely to die from the same medical issues that poor and uneducated women fall victim to. Ultimately, it did not matter that the individual didn’t have access to the same healthcare options as Serena Williams, a pro athlete, or Shalon Irving, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both women suffered high-risk pregnancies so brutal, that Irving died from complications after birth, and Williams was confined to her bed for several weeks after delivering her daughter.
The more prominent concern is to determine better ways to apprehend this rising epidemic. After all, 42.8 in every 100,000 Black women die each year post-delivery, in the U.S. alone. As a significant amount of these deaths are preventable with the proper education, I asked Leslie Jaret, an incoming registered nurse, for details on her program’s curriculum in regards to racism within healthcare.
“They don’t really go too deep into racism [in the registered nurse program],” Jaret said. Jaret’s graduation date is set for this March, and she predicts the program is well past the matter, and has no more to offer her on racial disparities within healthcare.
A lack of representation within the system
Racial disparities continue to be a leading cause in mortality rates within the healthcare system. Not just among the hospital beds, but also in the lack of diversity among our doctors which breeds grounds for increased issues.
Segregation ultimately affected the representation of Black doctors. In the 1800’s, the U.S. healthcare system set Black doctors apart from White ones, limiting the amount of patients they were able to treat. Over 100 years have passed, and there is still record of a huge lack of diversity, with only 6 percent of doctors employed in the U.S. being Black, according to USNews.
This means Black patients are at risk of not receiving the necessary screenings and treatments needed to improve their quality of life. Research has linked improvement in health outcomes among Black men directly to their treatments being facilitated by Black doctors. Although it may be a hard pill to swallow, it appears Black men and women are more likely to walk out of an emergency room alive after being treated by a Black doctor than when treated by a White one.
Separate from the lack of representation, is the lack of trust within the system. Black individuals hold very little trust in healthcare workers, and do not trust that their White doctors have the intent to treat them with the highest capacity. As a result, Black men and women are seen falling ill to easily treatable diseases.
This lack of trust dates back to a broken system, one that has not yet taken responsibility for its wrongdoings and mistakes.
As Black History Month approaches, the takeaway the Black community seeks from the public is to determine what can be done to improve the system. As an end result, U.S. should see more Black doctors within our hospital rooms and lower mortality rates amongst Black individuals.