In the United States, we have a health care system that does not provide adequate access to health care for everyone. Often those at greater risk of being denied or lacking access to care are people of color. As a society, we must work collectively to address systemic racism within our health care system. In many ways, I think we do people a disservice when we speak about systemic racism in our health care system as this mammoth of an issue without a face.
After finishing graduate school, I moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. to join Burness. I would often fly home to visit my family and friends so I maintained my primary care physician in Texas. During a trip home I went in for my usual annual physical, except this time it was anything but normal. While going through all the standard questions I recall being asked how often I worked out, “Five days a week minimum,” I replied. My doctor’s response was one I still think of today. “Well, I will still need to run some tests for blood pressure and diabetes because you Blacks are prone to those.” The comment went over my head at that moment, but I realized what it was. Here was a doctor I had seen since I was in my early twenties stereotyping me based on the color of my skin.
Growing up, my mother was terrified of going to the dentist. I never paid the fear any mind because my experiences with my dentist were pleasant and filled with laughing gas. Only when I was older did she detail where the history of that fear came from. When she was growing up, the dentist she went to performed procedures without administering anesthesia. Furthermore, he would tell her that the reason she didn’t need it was because she was Black and that made her tougher. I can’t imagine that happening today, I thought to myself, but the more I thought about it, the more it brought up similar experiences I have had as an adult.
For those who believe that systemic racism does not exist within our health care system, look no further than where we are as a country at this moment. Despite our efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color are still being infected and dying at much higher rates than their white peers. This is not by chance. It is by design of the system we have relied on since the inception of American medicine. Take the Tuskegee experiments, for example, a study that left Black men with Syphillis from getting treatment because their government refused to treat them and prevented them from getting a cure. That was less than 100 years ago.
Even now across the United States, state-level governments refuse to expand Medicaid, leaving millions of people without adequate access to preventive and life-saving care. That decision perpetuates long-standing challenges people of color have experienced firsthand. I have experienced these challenges myself and heard the painful stories of my family members.
How do we fix a system that was never designed to include people of color in the first place? I again realize that I don’t have the answer to that, but what I do know is that if we can come to a place of agreement that says we are aware of the problem, then we can map out a plan to reimagine our healthcare system. This requires building a health care system that reflects the growing diversity of America. It means rooting out those providers who continue to perpetuate racist policies while practicing medicine. It means providing training to health care workers that helps eradicate internalized biases and expanding known policies such as Medicaid to address racial disparities in health care coverage. Reaching our full potential as a collective nation requires us to stand up to all forms of racism and work to build a health care system that is inclusive and reflective of our modern-day true values.