The Historical Significance of Racial Bias in Healthcare

Freddi Mitchell

It is no secret that the American healthcare system has historically been biased against people of color. Whether it be the continued use of now disproved research about the effects of race on biology or doctors’ own prejudices, the historical effects of racism are ever present in our healthcare system. But how did racism come to have such a large impact on American healthcare?

The racial disparities in our healthcare system have been present since the country’s formation. Becaue slavery was an essential part of the nation’s economy, flawed medical rearch was done to justify its practice, and some of the myths established in this research are still perpetuated today. The 1619 Project, which was released on the 400th anniversary of slavery in America, details slavery’s effects on American institutions. In one article that details the effect of slavery on health care, Linda Villarosa writes, “Over the centuries, the two most persistent physiological myths — that black people were impervious to pain and had weak lungs that could be strengthened through hard work — wormed their way into scientific consensus, and they remain rooted in modern-day medical education and practice” (1619 Project). The same myths that were used to justify the practice of slavery are still used in the practice of medicine today. 

The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) conducted a study which included 418 medical students and residents. When asked about myths regarding racial differences in biology, “about 50% reported that at least one of the false belief items was possibly, probably, or definitely true” (PNAS). The study highlights that people who practice medicine are not immune to the biased beliefs rooted in flawed research. One glaring example of this is that because some doctors continue to believe that black people have higher pain tolerances than white people, “black Americans are systematically undertreated for pain relative to white Americans” (PNAS). 

Sadly, it is not only the continued perpetuation of these studies, but also personal prejudices that affect the quality of healthcare provided for minorities. In a Harvard Medical School blog, Monique Tello (MD, PhD) explains that doctors “know that our own subconscious prejudices, also called implicit bias, can affect the way we treat patients” (Harvard Health Publishing). Because of the racist stereotypes commonly found in American culture, black people are often the group most affected by this “implicit bias.”  Until the country makes more progress regarding racial diversity and equity in areas other than healthcare, the issues surrounding the mistreatment of, and misinformation about black Americans in healthcare cannot be solved.

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