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Black Health Matters

June 6 | Words by Harit Sohal and Nadia Ladak, Graphics by Sissi Chen

The unjust murder of George Floyd has caused a recent surge in public awareness and activism regarding the inherent racism within the police, judicial, and prison systems in the United States. This is a result of centuries of racism deeply-rooted in systems and institutions within and outside the United States, and contributes to the oppression of Black people.

Racism permeates every single institution in our society, including the healthcare system. While racism in healthcare is a complex issue and our blog cannot be exhaustive, the purpose of this post is to provide an opportunity for reflection by highlighting a few examples of racial disparities in healthcare.

Canada is often seen as a country that prides itself on values of multiculturalism and acceptance. However, these values are not always reflected in our healthcare systems, particularly for Black and Indigenous peoples. A core issue is the lack of race-based health data collection, meaning that although racism in the healthcare system exists, it may not be adequately detected. For example, the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 in Black communities is clear in the US. However, with a lack of data in Canada, the severity of the impact on Black communities in Canada is lost. Because of this very problem, many of the statistics mentioned below are based on US data. 

In the shift to dismantling racism in healthcare systems, the focus needs to be extended beyond research and into practice as well. Currently, 5.7% of US Physicians are Black, even though they represent 13% of the overall population. This forces Black people to have sensitive conversations with medical professionals who may not understand their lived experiences and unique needs. Furthermore, it has been argued that having similar racial and cultural backgrounds with one’s doctor promotes communication and trust, leading to more effective treatment. While we are not stating that Black patients must be treated by Black doctors, we are simply expressing that shared experiences establish a stronger sense of empathy and understanding of a patient. 

Physicians, like every other individual in society, are exposed to several negative narratives regarding racial minorities, especially with the Black community. This exposure has the ability to lead to implicit and explicit biases about Black individuals. In fact, a study from the US National Institute of Health showed that many White doctors perceive Black patients to be less sensitive to pain than their White counterparts. Before slavery was abolished, this pain myth was used by slave owners to dehumanize their slaves without guilt. Although it is no longer a predominant thought, this myth continues to seep into the perception of Black individuals’ pain today. For example, Black patients are currently 22% less likely than White patients to receive pain medication in the emergency department. 

According to the Canadian Health Association, social determinants of health include but are not limited to, income, education, unemployment, social exclusion, early childhood development, food insecurity, and housing. Although Black individuals represent 3% of the Canadian population, they represent 18% of Canadians living in poverty, resulting in disparities across several social determinants of health. Healthcare is universal in Canada yet there are many examples in which those with lower income levels have higher barriers to leading a healthy life. For instance, living in poverty makes it next to impossible to afford high quality nutrition and groceries that are recommended to optimize health. This can lead to a vicious cycle of poor nutrition, increased chances of falling ill, expensive medical bills that may not be covered by universal health care, and overall worse health outcomes. 

This article is not an exhaustive document, but a contribution to the awareness of racial healthcare disparities. We acknowledge that we have only begun to scratch the surface of a deeply rooted and widely-interconnected issue. We don’t use this as an excuse to stop here, rather we accept the challenge to further educate ourselves and to raise health standards for everyone. We have listed a number of resources below that will be helpful in starting your educational journey regarding this topic. We encourage you to join us in following organizations such as Black Health Matters and Black Health Alliance that are making a difference in this space.

36 Resources To Learn About Racism & Health

8 Articles

How We Fail Black Patients’ Pain

       By Janice A. Sabin | AAMC (Jan 6, 2020)

Myths About Physical Racial Differences Were Used to Justify Slavery — And Are Still Believed by Doctors Today

       By Linda Villarosa | NY Times (Aug 14, 2019)

This Is How the American Healthcare System Is Failing Black Women

       By Erika Stallings | The Oprah Magazine (Aug 1, 2018)

Social Determinants of Health

       By Black Heath Alliance

Racism: The Evergreen Toxin Killing Black Mothers and Infants

       By Danyelle Solomon | Centre of America Progress (April 18, 2018)

The Lack of Health Data About Black Canadians Can Be Life-Threatening

      By Meghan Collie | Global News (Nov 13, 2019)

How Racism Creeps into Medicine

       By Hamza Shaban | The Atlantic (Aug 29, 2014)

Millions of Black People Affected by Racial Bias in Health-Care Algorithms

       By Heidi Ledford | Nature (Oct 24,2019)


8 TED Talks

How Racism Makes Us Sick 

       By David R. Williams

Racism Has A Cost for Everyone

       By Heather C. McGhee

Why Your Doctor Should Care About Social Justice  

       By Mary Bassett

The Problem With Race-Based Medicine 

       By Dorothy Roberts

The Trauma of Systematic Racism Is Killing Black Women

       By T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison

How Racism Harms Pregnant Women - And What Can Help

       By Miriam Zoila Perez

Why Genetic Research Must Be More Diverse 

       By Keolu Fox 

The Racial Politics of Time

       By Brittney Cooper


5 Videos

Minority Health Disparities: Michelle’s Story

       John Hopkins Medicine (April 18, 2017)

Is There A Racial “Care Gap” In Medical Treatment?

       PBS NewsHour (April 5, 2016)

 If You’re Not White It’s Harder To Get Mental Health Care

        Al Jazeera (Nov 23, 2015)

Coronavirus Health Disparities Highlight Race and Class Divides in NYC Epicenter 

       ABC News (May 21, 2020)

Carolyn Roberts on Race, Health, and Medicine in Times of COVID-19

       The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (May 4, 2020)

10 Podcasts

How Racism Impacts Our Mental Health | Therapy for Black Girls

How the Bad Blood Started |1619

Reproducing Racism | Reveal

So Why Is the Pandemic Killing So Many Black Americans | The Daily

Episode 76: From the Archives: Dr. Kenneth Clark on Racism and Child Well-Being | Into The Fold

The Intersection of Racism and Health Amid the Coronavirus | The World

How Racism Harms Pregnant Women - And What Can Help with Miriam Zoila Perez | Ted Health

Ep 6: Racism Is A Public Health Issue | Coloring Health Policy

Bleeding | Bodies

Racism, Colonialism & Hope. The Realities of Indigenous Health, with Dr. Michael Kirlew | Solving Healthcare


5 Books

The Black Women's Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves | By Evelyn C. White

Medical Apartheid | By Harriet A Washington

Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care | By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry | By Helen Longino

Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics | By Lundy Braun