If doctors aren’t racist, the system might be


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

“No physician is racist.”

The storm hit the instant those words were uttered in the Journal of American Medical Association’s podcast in February. The Journal is the bible of the American Medical Association, and thus the bible for doctors and medical professionals throughout the country.

So it is no surprise that those words would hit like a force 10 gale. The association scrambled and announced that both the editor and the doctor responsible for the podcast resigned. However, it took three months for that to happen and there was no indication that the words, let alone the sentiment behind the declaration of no doctor racism, was totally repudiated.

But in truth, why would it be? The issue of whether there is systemic racism in medicine, or put bluntly, do doctors treat Black and Hispanic patients differently than whites?

Systemic racism has been debated so often that it has almost become synonymous with lousy health care for Blacks and Hispanics, especially poor Blacks and Hispanics. The infamous Tuskegee experiment is almost always cited to make the case that Blacks routinely get the shaft from doctors.

That ghastly experiment made Guinea pigs out of dozens of unsuspecting poor Black males who were infected with syphilis. They were deliberately allowed to suffer and die for four decades from the 1930s on with the knowing consent of the U.S. Public Health Service without any treatment.

The charge of a medical double standard reared its head with much heat in the debate over the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Countless surveys and studies were cited to show that African Americans are less likely than other groups to have comprehensive care and treatment for every major medical malady. The stats on chronic medical neglect have piled up over time.

Blacks still make up a wildly disproportionate number of the estimated 50 million Americans with absolutely no access to affordable or any health care. The majority of Black uninsured are far more likely than the one in four whites who are uninsured to experience problems getting treatment at a hospital or clinic.

That has had devastating health and public policy consequences. According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Blacks are far more likely than whites to suffer higher rates of catastrophic illness and disease and are much less likely to obtain basic drugs, tests, preventive screenings, and surgeries. They are more likely to recover slower from illness, and they die much younger.

The issue of a medical racial double standard exploded again when the first reports came in that COVID-19 was a new, aggressive, and especially lethal viral infection. The question was: will this pose an even greater health menace to African Americans?

And the first question about testing was: will Blacks have ready access to screening and testing? Will the treatment care and facilities be readily available in poor and underserved Black communities? Will medications and a vaccine when developed be readily available in the same communities?

The answers weren’t forthcoming in part because public health officials were then still venturing into unchartered territory with the virus. But in greater part because of the past and present still gaping disparities in health care for Blacks.

The question that the ill-fated February Journal of American Medical Association podcast raised is how much of this can be attributed to the attitudes of those who turn the wheels in the medical profession, namely doctors. Again, the picture isn’t pretty or comforting.

Several studies have examined implicit and blatant racial biases of doctors in treating Blacks with severe maladies versus treating whites. Studies confirmed that many Blacks at high medical risk were far more likely to die from the illnesses than whites even after adjusting for age, sex, insurance, education and the severity of the disease.

That doesn’t prove that many doctors are racist and that racism seeps into their treatment or non-treatment of Blacks and Hispanics. That would be much too broad a brush to stroke. It’s an unfair stretch since many doctors are dedicated professionals and make it their mission as professionals to provide quality unbiased care and treatment to all their patients.

The better question is the chronic lack of affordable health care for minorities and the paucity, and the gross underfunding of, public health clinics and other testing and treatment facilities in poor and minority communities the real culprit? There is plenty of evidence to support that.

Another daunting question is: Has the real and perceived abuse and racial disparities in the health care system made many Blacks distrustful and wary of the medical system? There is plenty of evidence to support that too.

The Journal of American Medical Association podcast and the flame it ignited is yet another opportunity to tackle anew a long-standing demand. That is to ensure that health care and treatment are equitable, affordable and accessible for poor African Americans and Hispanics as for whites. Then it might be said “no physician is racist.”

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “I Can’t Breathe — The Never-Ending George Floyds” (Middle Passage Press). He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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