Black History Month Sheds a Light on Racism as a Public Health Threat

From the article posted by Atif Kukaswadia on the PLOS Blogs: Public Health Perspectives:

Black History Month came and went all too quickly — while it gave our nation a spotlight for the accomplishments and contributions of the black community, it also reminded us to reflect and focus on the threats facing African-Americans all year around. Beyond the month of February, civil rights advocacy continues to address racial disparities in voting rights, education and criminal justice, but discrimination also impacts the black community in ways that aren’t typically seen as social issues. This is particularly true in public health and should be addressed by doctors and nurse practitioners.

Discrimination affects mental and physical health

Racism is detrimental to mental and physical health because repeated exposure causes a heightened sense of fear and anxiety regardless of whether victims experience physical violence or merely anticipate discriminatory behavior. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported more than 1,000 hate crimes in the month following the 2016 presidential election — 221 of which were logged as anti-black incidents. The past several years of media coverage on tragic cases of police brutality and alarming stop-and-frisk regulations shows us that many more cases often go unreported, and have profound negative impact on the health of African-Americans.

Long-term physical manifestations of discrimination include depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and premature death. One of America’s leading social epidemiologists, Nancy Krieger, points out that constant stress from racial profiling can give way to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like over- or undereating, retreating from personal relationships, unstable anger management, violence, and other lifestyle choices. These coping mechanisms exacerbate poorer health outcomes overtime, creating a cycle based in what Krieger terms “embodied inequality” — the idea that human bodies do not partition social and biological experiences.

Discrimination shapes health care

Indirect effects of racism in health care are often harder to see on the surface, but can create barriers to accessing quality care. These barriers can be identified through social determinants of health, which are “conditions in one’s environment — where people are born, live, work, learn, play, and worship — that have a huge impact on how healthy certain individuals and communities are or are not,” according to Healthy People 2020. Victims of racism are more vulnerable to the risks of living through social determinants that make it harder to seek medical care, like inadequate transportation, low income, poor health literacy, fewer educational opportunities, underemployment, and other systemic barriers.

Black communities have historically experienced more structural barriers to health care than white communities, which not only make it harder to seek treatment, but can also lead to poor outcomes even if treatment is accessed. A 2012 study from Johns Hopkins University found that many primary care doctors hold a subconscious bias toward their black patients, which undermines any positive outcomes of a medical visit. During visits with black patients, the study revealed that doctors tended to speak slower, use less positive tones, dominate conversations and spent less time addressing social aspects of the patients’ lives. Inadequate patient-doctor consultations can result in poor health literacy, which can lead patients to wait longer before seeking care for a health issue, and ultimately creates more urgent and expensive treatments long term.

Health Literacy Can Mitigate Racial Disparities

Mitigating the detrimental effects of racism — subconscious or not — is easier said than done, but begins with providers acknowledging that biases exist and are creating health disparities. While medical providers can work to eliminate attitudes that lead to discrimination, they can also participate in public policy and on-the-ground interactions with patients. On an administrative level, providers can employ more diverse staff members, and promote medical research for racial disparities in public health, and work to expand access to quality health care to African-American patients. One potential avenue for intervention is through increased health literacy but in order to promote health literacy among African Americans, nurses, social workers, and educators must collaborate to meet patients where they are, listen to their concerns, advocate for creative solutions, and train others in professional communities to do the same.

Read the full article.

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