doctor checking the heart rate of a man
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In recent study from Pew Research, African Americans provided a mixed assessment of the progress that has been made improving health outcomes for Black people.  Roughly 47 percent said health outcomes for Black people have gotten better over the past 20 years, while 31 percent say they’ve stayed about the same and 20 percent think they’ve gotten worse.

Less access to quality medical care is the top reason Black Americans see contributing to generally worse health outcomes for Black people in the U.S. Large numbers also believe environmental quality problems in Black communities, and hospitals and medical centers giving lower priority to the well-being of Black people also play vital roles in health inequity.  

“The pandemic has been a stark reminder of the disparate health outcomes Black Americans face. It was essential for the survey to be able to speak to health and medical experiences.  The health and medical care system is one of the primary ways people encounter science in their daily lives,” said Cary Funk, director of the Pew Research Center’s science and society research. “There are ongoing efforts to address systematic bias in the medical care system, as well as efforts to improve trust between Black Americans and the broader science, medical science, and public health communities. And while this research was in the works before the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the disparate health outcomes Black Americans face. It was essential for the survey to be able to speak to health and medical experiences.”

Funk said that one of the chief aims of the study is to gain insight into the potential barriers and opportunities to deepen engagement with science among Black Americans.  More importantly, the research highlighted the impact of discrimination – real or perceived – in how African Americans sought care, from whom, and to what extent healthcare advice was followed.  

The experiences of younger Black women in the medical system, for instance, showed that a large majority of Black women ages 18 to 49 reported having experienced at least one of seven negative health care experiences.  They are also more likely than other Black adults to say they would prefer a Black health care provider for routine care and to say a Black doctor or other health care provider would do a better job than medical professionals of other races and ethnicities at providing them with quality medical care.

Such was the case with Charleesa Graham, 32, a graduate student living in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood, who recently relocated from Florida.  After developing asthma while living near Coral Gables, she said she could not get a grasp on the condition or even a proper diagnosis because the physicians had such a poor bedside manner or treated her disrespectfully.

“The attitudes of the hospital workers was very curt and direct, there was no compassion or empathy even though it was clear I was having trouble breathing.  They seemed more interested in whether I was taking illegal drugs,” Graham said.  “I left the hospital and returned to my apartment where a neighbor recognized my symptoms as a potential asthma attack and took me to a local botanica for an herbal tincture.”

Graham said since then, she chooses only doctors with cultural competencies of the Black community or naturopathic physicians who treat holistically.  She said that while natural medicine is not for everyone, every person should feel comfortable in the care of the doctors who are paid to treat them.

The complexities of public trust were found to drive the breakdown in communication between health systems and physicians and the people they serve.  Pew also found that Black Americans expressed a wariness about medical researchers’ trustworthiness when it comes to admitting their mistakes and taking responsibility for them when they happen – with 61 percent of Black adults noting that medical research misconduct is just as likely to occur today as it was in the past.  With historical injustices including the Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cell) abuses and those of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment ever-looming, African Americans readily reject the idea that safeguards are in place today to prevent serious cases of research misconduct.

“This is not about bad doctors; it is about finding the right fit to ensure we get the best care possible.  It is also important that Black people keep up with those preventative healthcare appointments and adhere to the common-sense guidelines that they are given.  This cannot happen if we do not trust the doctors, or the doctors have a not-so-hidden bias.” Graham said.

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