A Doctor stares intently at a patients x-ray results after many minutes of silence he finally says, “Wow did you know your lungs are full of fluid” the patient perks up. Although, this isn’t news anyone wants to hear she is hopeful that someone is finally going to take her concerns seriously. You see she has spent the last couple of months going from doctor to doctor explaining her symptoms and even bringing herself to the ER only to be released within the hour and told to take a few days off and get some rest.
She has been in this scenario many times and each time she hopes this will be the day that she gets some answers and some relief. The doctor continues “I can see based off these x-rays and your symptoms you have developed signs of pneumonia” the patient expects the next words out of the doctor’s mouth is hospital admission or antibiotic subscription, but alas she is told the all too familiar, “I think you just need to get some rest and be sure to take some cough medicine if that cough persists.”
This scenario has become the norm for many women of color. Disparities in health care are killing black women at alarming rates. Factors such as income, access to insurance and health care facilities, and lack of preventative treatments play a major role in this gap. However, there is one factor rarely addressed; racial biases of health care professionals.
A study conducted with medical students at the University of Virginia found a substantial number of white medical students and residents held false beliefs about biological differences between black and white patients. This resulted in bias when it came to treatment plans, causing many of the participants to provide inadequate treatment plans for the black patients in these hypothetical case studies.
There are many examples of these disparities. The center for disease control stated the mortality rate for black women in childbirth is more than three times that of white women. Also, studies have found cervical cancer rate among black women is twice the rate of white women. Other studies have found women of color are more likely to receive radiation or chemotherapy as their only options for treatment; while white women were more likely to receive treatment incorporating surgery, chemo and radiation which allowed for much higher survival rates.
So where do we go from here? It is imperative health care providers acknowledge implicit bias plays a large role in decreasing the healthcare gap, and actively work to combat those biases. (See below for contacting YWCA Lake County for Implicit Bias training.)
In the meantime, we as women of color will have to be our own advocates. Be sure to vote and let your voice be heard especially on policies impacting health care for women of color. Ask question, as many as you need so that you fully understand your diagnosis and options. Lastly, do not be afraid to switch doctors or get a second opinion. I was that patient searching for an answer and eventually after multiple trips to the ER; I demanded to be prescribed antibiotics. After much resistance I finally received the proper treatment. Unfortunately, every case doesn’t always have a happy ending, but by keeping the conversation going we can begin to affect real change.