Black History month is a celebration of black lives, tradition, and culture, but it’s just as importantly also a month of advocacy for change.
And our country has a health problem.
This year’s “Black Health and Wellness” theme for the month feels especially timely as our country continues to struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disparities in health outcomes for minorities in America were hardly a secret before COVID-19, but lately it feels like a magnifying glass has been put over the issue, making it harder than ever to ignore.
“Health disparities” refers to the myriad health outcomes that are worse for some people than others. These disparities impact our Black communities and communities of color at higher rates than white communities. In 2019, a Pew Research Center report found a heartbreaking 76% of Black people have faced discrimination when receiving medical treatment.
Vulnerable populations who are struggling have spent the last two years more at risk, with illness and death rates from COVID for Black people being consistently and proportionally higher than for white people. More broadly, maternal and infant mortality rates are higher for Black people, even when you control for education and socio-economic. Black people receive worse pain management than white people, their pain often diminished or even ignored entirely. Black women get diagnosed with breast cancer at later stages in the disease, despite similar access to mammograms. The list goes on.
Just living with the stress of being Black in America, a stress validated by endless statistics and anecdotes, takes a toll on physical and mental health.
And for people of color and other disadvantaged populations, there aren’t a lot of resources for help, often producing a self-perpetuating cycle of, “No matter how hard I try, I can’t get out of this rut.”
Disparities affect health outcomes, quality of life, and a person’s ability to act as an advocate for their own health. A major issue is that medical providers, by virtue of being human, can struggle with relating to people of different cultures and backgrounds. It requires listening, being open-minded, respectful, and empathetic. When we don’t take the time to listen, we can miss the cues and opportunities to meet people where they are.
According to the CDC, the hospitalization rate of COVID-19 among black people is 4.7 times higher than for white people. At the start of COVID, Black Americans were also less likely to get vaccinated, a trend that left an unfair label of being anti-vax - all because basic questions weren’t being asked, questions as simple as “Do people have access to vaccines? Do they have the ability to take time off from work?”
But with a little work, solutions can be found. With the current pandemic, offering testing at community clinics dramatically increases the number of tests that are taken by making the process more accessible and less intimidating than, say, going into the emergency department or medical offices.
Similarly simple solutions can be found for other issues that perpetuate health disparities. The most basic solution? Getting more people of color in positions of power - and being a doctor, working in a hospital, being in a position to hear and truly understand someone in need, that’s a position of power.
And while I embrace having a month dedicated to celebrating how far we have come in this country and the world, if we don’t use this time to assess where we’re still weak and make a group effort to get stronger, to me we are missing out on an incredible opportunity to make Black History Month the tool for betterment that it can be.