Cartoon woman receiving healthcare from a nurse

Racism's Impact on Healthcare for Women & People of Colour

 Cartoon woman receiving healthcare from a nurse

For decades, racism has run so rampant—almost unchecked. But with recent advancements in technology, connectivity, and the social mindset that everyone is entitled to a voice, the problem of racism and its harmful effects can no longer hide in obscurity.

The sad truth is that racism infiltrates aspects like POC healthcare and it can contribute to prolonged illnesses and even claim innocent lives. This article serves to shed more light on the issue and what we, as a community, can do to help. Though it may seem the problem of racism in healthcare is too immense to tackle, individual efforts can mean a lot! So don’t lose heart, readers. We’re in this together.

 Close up of doctor equipment

What IS Racism?

Before we delve into racism’s impact on healthcare, let’s start with a clear definition of what it is. Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism towards a group or person based on their race or ethnicity—typically one that is a minority or is marginalized. It can also be defined as a belief of there being inferior and superior races.

Of course, upbringing, conditioning, and personal lived experiences have plenty to do with this problem. Over time, racist thoughts—although not always intentional—may reach a subconscious level and contribute “snap judgements” made towards another person based on their race and appearance.

Understanding this concept is important when it comes to being aware of our own biases. Even the most self-proclaimed progressive person can harbour racist thoughts.

Institutional Racism in Healthcare

Racism is not just calling someone names or physical altercations motivated by hate—although these are already unacceptable manifestations. Racism can take on a darker and more widespread form called institutional or systemic racism.

Institutional racism is when the complex interaction of culture, policy, and institutions influence outcomes in society based on race. Institutional racism can affect all aspects of the lives of POC such as criminal justice, housing, education, employment, and healthcare.

Institutional or systemic racism affects us all—because we’re all part of the system—but in different ways. In any society where race becomes a determinant for a person’s success, well-being, or even just the bare minimum of whether they are granted the dignity they deserve, there’s a sickness. And this sickness does not stay in a silo. Rather, it affects everyone whether directly or indirectly. Overall, society will not thrive and flourish as it should.

But the good news is that since each of us is part of the system, we can affect change even with just our individual actions. This is why awareness and education of institutional racism are so important. When more people become knowledgeable about systems set up to oppress POC, there’s a better chance of this problem not being able to proliferate.

Black mother sitting on a hospital bed

Racism’s Role in Healthcare for People of Colour

Race Influences Infant Mortality Rate & Prenatal Care

The mortality rate of Black infants is more than double that of non-Hispanic whites in the United States. Connected to this, there is also the same ratio of Black mothers who receive late or no prenatal care, compared to non-Hispanic white mothers.

But it gets worse.

Black mothers are also 3 times more likely to die during childbirth or because of childbirth-related complications. When we put together all of these statistics, a pattern emerges and it becomes clear that Black mothers are not given the same quality of maternal care.

Race Influences Whether or Not Pain Medication is Given

Dr. Knox Todd, an emergency medicine physician in the United States, conducted two studies that looked into whether or not a patient’s ethnicity influences if they receive pain medication when visiting the ER. The studies found that a significantly high percentage of Hispanic and Black patients did not receive pain medications and that there’s a high chance that this healthcare disparity is based on race.

Dr. Todd also statistically looked at other factors as well: the time of the patient’s arrival, how long they spent in the ER, the gender of the patient, and more. But still, the strongest predictor that he found of whether or not pain medication would be given to the patient, is race.

Considering that these two studies were performed in two separate (and reputable) institutions suggests just how widespread this problem is.

Race Influences Emergency Room Response Time

Racial discrimination impacts health in many ways but one of the most direct and blatant ways is through the denial of access to needed healthcare. In some Canadian healthcare institutions, race can be a determinant of the ER’s response time to a patient—and this can have serious life-threatening consequences.

One such case is that of Brian Sinclair, an Indigenous man from Manitoba who was “ignored to death” in an ER. After seeing a family physician, Brian was referred to the ER of a nearby reputable hospital. He entered the ER in his wheelchair. After he had been ignored and unattended for the next 36 hours, he died of complications of a treatable bladder infection. It’s a tragedy that such a death could have been easily preventable had racial bias not been part of the equation.

Race Influences the Hospital Algorithm

Algorithms in healthcare exist to help healthcare providers make decisions about a patient’s treatment and care. According to an analysis published in Science, a decision-making software that is widely used in US hospitals was systematically discriminating against POC.

While running routine statistical checks on data that was received from a large hospital, Dr. Ziad Obermeyer and his colleagues at the time were surprised to find that Black patients were generally assigned lower risk scores than white patients who were equally sick. As a result, the Black patients were less likely to be referred to treatment programs that provided much-needed personalized care.

Typical day in an emergency room

What Can We Do?

Individual efforts already mean a lot. Simply watching out for your own biases and taking care not to spread any racist beliefs, statements, or any form of racist media is already a huge help. If you want to do more, spreading awareness is definitely the way to go!

  • If you know anyone belonging to a racial minority, you may want to inform them. Though it can be a sensitive topic, you can carefully warn them to be aware of a hospital’s standard of care so that they can speak up against any violations of it if they experience it for themselves.
  • If you know any healthcare professionals, share this article with them so that they are aware that incidents like this can happen. They will also be able to watch out for their own biases if they ever need to provide healthcare to a POC.

A bit of awareness can go a long way as we collectively create a world with more compassion, humanity, and dignity for all.

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