Health Care Racism in America

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While racism arises from prejudice and discrimination against a race, this social issue is also prominent in the scientific realm. When applied in the medical field, patients who experience racism can be unable to defend themselves if the professionals weaken their capabilities. Due to patient negligence and bias, the health care provider’s poor treatment breaks the trust of numerous minorities. As shown in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and treatment of Henrietta Lacks, doctors and researchers failed to inform the participants correctly. Both occurrences highlight medical racism because of the historical maltreatment of minority groups. Now, many minorities, especially African Americans, mistrust health care providers. Therefore, this systemic racism affects the social structure of the past, present, and future. Understanding the past through the present, the historical context of medical racism is a bioethical issue that continues to evolve.

Translating into the future, new racism in health care emerges from previous social prejudice. From the journal article “The spectrum of ‘new racism’ and discrimination in hospital contexts: A reappraisal” by Megan-Jane Johnstone et al., new racism “has come to symbolise a potent push for ‘cultural homogeneity’ (qtd. in Miles 62) and the defence of ‘our homogenous’ ‘way of life’” (qtd. in Barker 16). Today, homogeneity and racism will disrupt social structures by causing paranoia and mistrust, which are impacts from the past that evidently undermine present-day social issues. In new racism, health care providers may believe that institutional racism does not exist, creating an “illusion of non-racism” (Johnstone et al. 64). Although current racism downplays this ethical issue, minority patients recognize the faults in systemic racism. Since systemic racism is a continuous cycle of prejudice, minority groups become paranoid that they may encounter racism when receiving treatment due to old racism. By conferring to new racism, minority groups feel threatened by medical institutions. Following the journal article, Johnstone et al. continues that “proponents of new racism (disguised as national separatism) have been enormously successful in cultivating resentments and fears of ‘alien outsiders’ and fostering what Ghassan Hage calls ‘paranoid nationalism” (qtd. in Hage 3). Despite paranoia and mistrust of people of color, perpetrators also feel similar backlash and sentiments toward the oppressed. To uncover modern-day bioethical issues, the past serves as a foundation and evidence in examining today’s medical racism.

Drawing from the infamous shortcomings of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the racial stigma and discrimination in the health field provide a historical context of medical racism. Between 1932 to 1972, researchers from the study conducted an experiment on African American men by assuring 399 of them free treatment for bad blood, or syphilis, and simple incentives in exchange for their research that brought up a bioethical dilemma. According to the journal article “Lest We Forget: The Tuskegee Experiment,” “[p]enicillin was the standard treatment” but “participants in the Tuskegee Study were denied access to it” (Walker 5). Instead of providing the proper treatment, placebo drugs were substituted, which failed to treat their disease. Unaware of the mistreatment, the journal article entitled “An Overview of Research Ethics and Learning from the past” found that “325 men who died, 28 had died of syphilis, 100 died of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis” (Hardicre 484). Since doctors could have treated this preventable disease, medical malpractice and subconsciously knowing that they are able to treat syphilis built mistrust upon the minority groups, especially African Americans, in which was thought to be an act of expulsion and exploitation.

Providing evidence of health care gap, the telephone survey data expresses racial-stratified analyses among minorities. In the survey data, the average discriminatory belief scale of African Americans was a 12.4, compared to 11.0 for Latinos (see table 1). This presents that the characteristics of survey respondents of African Americans had stronger beliefs about racial discrimination in health care than Latinos. Indicating that African Americans’ are the most affected by their discriminatory belief, the treatment of Henrietta Lacks and African American men from the Tuskegee Study specifically undermines the reason why minorities fear of seeking health care. Yet, the strong association between the discriminatory belief scales and racial preference of the doctor show that an overwhelmingly scale score of 14.4 for African Americans prefer the same race doctor, whereas Latinos have a scale score of 12.6 (see figure 1). As a result, both analyses imply the detrimental impacts of discrimination in the health of African Americans.

Since history translates into the future, the present should be used as an opportunity for change. In the article “Public Health Meets the Problem of the Color Line,” Mary T. Bassett argues that solidarity is necessary to address racial oppression, especially in the field of science. By addressing racial oppression, she mentions that this issue should be engraved in research proposals in order to provide a framework in solving medical racism. Racial justice should also be a commitment to any career pathways. Whereas, the journal article “The Past, Present, and Future of Informed Consent in Research and Translational Medicine” by Susan M. Wolf et al., the professors present the emerging issues in medical ethics by mentioning the past and future complications. In the today’s era, the researchers call on the complex issues regarding informed consent by exposing the how decision-making affects professionals and their participants. In this case, professionals should carry the participants’ choice in a systematic fashion that will protect their individual rights. As members of the community, past and present affirmative actions pose a sense of security for people of color. However, systemic racism still poses as a threat to this sense of security.

Unethical experiments that provoked fears of exploitation and paranoia from minority groups are no excuse for the latest scientific findings. Since the “Tuskegee Study's harmful legacy lives on in the African American community...the experiment was perpetuated exclusively on African Americans,” in which, “has tainted their relationship with members of the health professions” (Walker 5). Although the modern world relies on technological advancements and scientific inquiry, the historical context regarding medical racism interferes with society’s trust. Relying on faith or their own judgment can be detrimental to their health since they are more likely to get hurt than heal. Seeking medical advice from professionals provides a safety cushion, but the broken trust prevents them from doing so. Therefore, medical and government authorities “must act as patient advocates” (Hardicre 486) in health care to regain trust. As leaders, they are responsible for maintaining order in society. With trust, the community can work together to solve social differences that arose from the past. Using social advancements and lessons from the past, medical racism needs to be addressed consistently and efficiently to protect individual rights. For that reason, there needs to be a boundary between equality and justice in health institutions.

While racial disparities in the medical realm arose from the past, the historical context translates into the future. By acknowledging historical roots of racism, the current events can prevent or imitate history’s mistakes. As the community continuously partakes in forging equality and justice to alleviate history’s abuse, racism in health care is also evolving. Like a bacterium, medical racism evolves to new racism that prevents unity. Therefore, we need to act as an antibiotic that combats racism’s resistance by treating the wounds from the past and healing the future. Using historical context, today’s community must work together to enforce just protocols that increase social diversity, provide a comfortable environment for both patients and scientists, and maintain equality.

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Health Care Racism in America. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved April 16, 2024 , from

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