America’s current healthcare system doesn’t have explicit discrimination against the care of Black people like it did in the 20th century. However, that doesn’t mean the effects of discriminatory policy and practices have gone away. Implicit racism in the minds of healthcare workers often causes poorer health outcomes for Black people and especially Black women.
To look at how a country is generally faring, experts turn to its maternal mortality and birth rates. In other words, the higher the healthy birth outcomes, the better the country is doing. Today, America ranks 55th in maternal mortality. Not only are we doing poorly, but it’s also gotten worse: the deaths from pregnancy increased 25% since 2000.
So how does this affect Black women? Most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable – meaning that decision-making by healthcare professionals contributed to the deaths. In 2019, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that Black women, along with Indigenous women, are 2 to 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Normally, when the income and education of a mother increase, the birth outcome is also better. This is because the mother is less likely to have financial stress, and has access to much more than just healthcare, like healthy foods and prenatal care. But for Black women, wealthy and educated Black women have the same poor birth outcomes as their poorer, less educated counterparts. This suggests that the highest cause of Black women’s stress isn’t finances or lack of education. Instead, it’s an environmental cause that affects every Black woman in America: racism.
Serena Williams is a prime example. Williams, a world-renowned women’s tennis star, nearly died in 2017 while giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. Though Williams was in prime physical shape, had celebrity status and access to the best medical care, she still had a pulmonary embolism that caused her to need to deliver by C-section. She had another after giving birth, leaving her bedridden for six weeks.
Racism permeates every system in America, and the healthcare system is no exception. In a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode, Oliver talked about how medical bias affects the care of Black people. One study found that 25% of medical residents believed that Black people have thicker skin than white people, and 14% believed that Black people’s nerve endings were less sensitive than white people’s, meaning that they would less pain. Black people were also 34% less likely than white people to be prescribed opioids for conditions such as backaches, abdominal pain, and migraines.
Wanda Sykes also appeared in the episode, after a clip from her comedy special played. The Emmy-winning actress tells how she had a double mastectomy – and doctors sent her home with only Ibuprofen as pain relief. Again, even with the added privileges of fame, wealth, and healthcare access, a Black woman did not receive proper care.
We must do better. Commitment to ending the racial bias in the medical field needs to be talked about more often and more seriously. More protocols and standardized procedures for all patients can successfully eliminate bias from healthcare workers. We need to establish basic measures to ensure that a patient’s access to testing or care isn’t determined by a person who could be biased. It’s unacceptable that in a country as wealthy and advanced as the United States, we have such wide and glaringly obvious health disparities between races. Hopefully in the future, with making the right changes, we can move towards a better, more effective way of caring for everyone.