Voices of Youth: How racism affects America's health care system

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student writer Kennedy Flowers examines why Black Americans disproportionately experience challenges in getting the medical care they need.

About a year ago, my mother, LaTanya Nobles, who is 46 and Black, visited a White dermatologist to treat a severe eczema outbreak. Nobles was diagnosed and prescribed treatment. However, after a few monthly doses, she began to experience adverse side effects. Her eyes became red with irritation, and it became difficult for her to cook, drive, or do anything that required visual focus. When she met with her dermatologist to discuss other possible treatments, she was told that there was nothing more they could do or prescribe. Following this incident, she began to look for other physicians, eventually finding a Black dermatologist whose practice is more than an hour away from our home. 

Despite the extensive travel and wait time for this physician, my mother sees this doctor to this day, because the treatment this doctor prescribes works for her skin. Stories like my mother's are all too familiar for Black Americans. Black people report lower rates of finding doctors who treat them with dignity and respect, and the treatment that darker-toned patients receive is often of less quality, resulting in an inefficient situation for both physician and patient. Both parties end up wasting time, because they’re essentially left with trying out or "testing" different medications. 

LaTanya Nobles.
My mother told me that when her dermatologist "tested" different medications on her skin, she felt like she was "not being treated like a human" but as a "zoo animal," and she felt like she had to "research the things [she was] feeling and come up with [her own] diagnoses prior to [her] appointment in order to be treated equally and as a human."   

Kela McClure, a 47-year-old social worker from Houston, Texas, had a similar experience. When she visited a gynecologist for a routine appointment, her doctor made crude remarks about her body during her checkup.

Shawn Morand, a 48-year-old teacher from Canton, Mich., spoke to me about the negative side effects of the medication she received from her dermatologist, who she believes was not familiar with the effects the prescribed medication would have on darker-toned patients.

When these women talked about the impact these experiences had on their mental well-being, they all mentioned feeling stressed, anxious, and even nauseous at the thought of visiting the doctor’s office again. These women aren’t alone in their experiences. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center, in which Black adults were asked a series of questions about their health care experience, found that 56% of Black adults involved in the study have had at least one negative experience with the health care system. A large majority of Black women reported sharing at least one of seven negative experiences that were asked about directly in the study.  

The common thread between all of these women’s experiences can be summed up in one word: Racism. America’s health care system was built on the dangerous myth that Black bodies are somehow inherently different from White bodies, as described in Linda Villarosa's book "Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation." Throughout history, experiments have been conducted in the interest of investigating and proving this myth. One example of this kind of experiment is the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study of the 1930s. In this experiment, scientists examined the progression of untreated syphilis under the false assumption that Black Americans naturally caught the infection at a higher rate than Whites, because Blacks belonged to a "syphilis-soaked race" and thus developed a different version of the infection altogether.

In a separate case at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951, scientists studied cells from a Black cervical cancer patient, Henrietta Lacks, without her consent. They discovered that Lacks’ blood contained cells that were so exceptional that scientists believed Lacks' cells were immortal, able to divide and replicate indefinitely. In truth, the cells in Lacks’ bloodstream were cancer cells from a tumor in her cervix. Lacks died of her cancer, and after her death, scientists named her cells "HeLa." Studies done on HeLa cells have transformed medicine. Scientists used HeLa cells to perfect the polio vaccine and develop gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. Though Lacks died penniless, her cells are copied and sold to this day for thousands. 

The Tuskegee syphilis study is one of thousands of similar experiments conducted during the 20th century. These experiments fed into the harmful notion that Black patients were inherently different from White patients, and thus need to be treated differently. This belief is still built into America’s health care system, which is why so many Black Americans have unsatisfactory trips to the doctor’s office in the 21st century. 

Recently, many organizations have been created to combat this notion and ensure that Black patients are treated equally in the health care system. Community health workers (CHWs) work with patients in their communities to lessen the disparity between Black and White patients by coordinating with physicians in the realm of compliance, prevention, and early diagnosis. They also provide social support for minority patients.

However, there are only around 60,000 CHWs employed in our nation, and until the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, they were not even recognized as essential members of the fighting force against health care disparities in America.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) employed an 18-member subcommittee consisting of CHWs and past CHWs that began convening last January. This committee will build on the core principles of community service, improving the coordinating efforts and community engagement strategies of CHWs throughout the nation, and assisting Medicaid and other efforts by MDHHS.

Similarly, the Michigan Community Health Worker Alliance (MiCHWA) assists the efforts of CHWs in our state. Those interested can join MiCHWA’s groundbreaking progress toward ending racism and racial bias in America’s health care system by becoming a member of the MiCHWA coalition, gaining access to jobs, volunteer opportunities, and more efforts that assist CHWs by following this link

Kennedy Flowers will be a senior this fall at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. Concentrate staffer Eric Gallippo served as her mentor on this project.

Photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
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