Last week, Bloomberg shared a report based on records from a medical center in Chicago that found healthcare providers were 2.54 times more likely to describe Black patients more negatively than patients who are White. The report is a reminder of the racial bias that continues to be pervasive in healthcare – and it’s costing Black patients their lives.
260 Black people die every day in America, and often in their prime years, due to substandard care. A common claim I’ve heard from healthcare professionals is that Black Americans are responsible for these disparities in their health outcomes due to their lifestyle choices. Ideas like these that blame Black patients for health inequities are upholding racism in the medical field and contributing to substandard care for Black patients.
As a Black woman working in the medical field, I know that lifestyle choices won’t help some Black patients live longer because they will still lack access to fair medical treatment. Black Americans disproportionately live in poverty and counties where Black residents comprise the majority population are usually deemed Health Professional Shortage Areas, meaning there are not enough physicians available to meet the needs of local residents. But, even when there is access to healthcare and Black patients have the means to pay for it, The National Academy of Medicine found that they still receive lower quality treatment in comparison to White people.
There is consensus amongst experts in the medical community confirming that when patients have access to quality care in the form of a sustained patient-provider relationship, their health outcomes are improved. But for Black patients, finding a primary care doctor is more difficult. Perceived discriminatory treatment in healthcare and the dark history of medical racism lead many Black patients to seek out Black healthcare providers, but Black physicians usually have limited availability.
Black doctors are less available because, while they account for only 5 percent of the physician workforce, they care for more than 20 percent of Black patients in the United States. Black physicians are also more likely to work and locate their practices in medically underserved communities, where they care for minority, poor, and uninsured patients. In some communities, Black physicians were found to practice in areas where the proportion of Black residents was nearly five times as high as where other physicians practiced.
More trust is established when Black patients visit Black physicians, which is linked to higher satisfaction, better health‐seeking behaviors, and adherence to medical treatment plans amongst Black patients receiving care. While having more Black physicians in the workforce would increase access to quality care and improve health outcomes for Black patients, addressing the needs of Black patients is the responsibility of all healthcare workers.
Limited progress has been made in reducing racial and ethnic healthcare inequities, and the need remains to create tools that address disparities affecting patients seeking healthcare and receiving treatment. Black patients would benefit from more culturally relevant interventions like the Health in Her Hue app, an app that was created to help Black women find culturally competent care. This app was developed by a Black woman who had negative experiences with healthcare providers and aims to connect Black women and women of color with other culturally sensitive care providers of color.
Along with providing technology that increases patient access to culturally competent care, health systems should develop and provide trainings for healthcare professionals to understand cultural differences in how patients interact with providers and the healthcare system. Health care workers should also be trained to better understand the needs of patients from diverse backgrounds. There are already cultural competence models that exist to reduce healthcare disparities, and the more healthcare leaders embrace a culturally relevant care model, the more Black patients will gain the trust in a medical system that should keep them safe and can save their lives.