A Brief History of Medical Racism and Resources for Today [Monday Memo]


In order to fully understand racism it’s important to look at how racism and white supremacy affect every facet of our society. Medicine is no different; in this week's Monday Memo we will discuss today’s medical biases rooted in racism and anti-blackness, a brief history of medical racism, and resources for black people in the United States to seek the mental and physical health care that they deserve.

Racism In Our Current Medical Climate

Both Covid-19 and the protests of 2020 have spotlighted systemic medical racism in many ways on a local and national scale.

Covid Updates: Black and Brown New Haveners Hit Hardest | New Haven Independent

Coronavirus in African Americans and Other People of Color | John Hopkins Medicine

Well before the George Floyd protests began earlier this year, there have been discussions of institutionalized medical racism presenting itself in various ways:

Always look at who’s talking: Religion at the University of Alabama

This article discusses a widespread photo of content from a Pearson medical textbook depicting generalized, fact-less racial stereotypes about pain tolerance. This textbook has since been removed from the publisher.

Black babies more likely to survive when cared for by black doctors, study finds | USA Today

Black Mothers Keep Dying After Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why | NPR

Having a black doctor led black men to receive more effective care | Harvard Business Review

Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients | Harvard Health

What algorithms tell us about structural racism in health care | National Nurses United

While there have been a number of articles published in recent days on the topic of black babies and black mothers being of higher risk of death during and after childbirth, this topic is not new in the media nor in research, which leads to us exploring the history of racism in medicine and how it has trickled down to still negatively affect patient care today.

Racism In Medicine’s Past

Video: Is there a racial ‘care gap’ in medical treatment? PBS News Hour (YouTube)

Video: The US medical system is still haunted by slavery | Vox (YouTube)

Content warning: graphically describes non-consensual medical procedures

A more in depth look at some of the instances mentioned in the Vox video above:

The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments On Slaves | History.com

The Infamous 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study | History.com

History of Forced Sterilization In the United States | Our Bodies Ourselves

The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations | NPR

What Can Be Done?

Many health care institutions and schools have discussed introducing implicit bias training to help medical students and health care professionals recognize when their unconscious racial bias may influence their decision making skills. The goal of these programs is to provide tools to re-frame thinking in order to provide safer and more effective health care to non-white patients:

Implicit Bias Curricula in Medical School: Student and Faculty Perspectives | Health Affairs

Making mental and physical health care more accessible to underserved communities also leads to better health and wellbeing. There are many organizations working to make this possible, to teach people of color how to access better health care and how to advocate for themselves in a health care environment:

Seven Organizations That Support Black Wellness

10 Wellness Organizations That Support Black Women’s Mental Health

Therapy For Black Men

Therapy for Latinx

A database for helping those in the Latinx community find therapists of similar backgrounds

32 Black-Led Queer & Trains Organizations to Support

Further Viewing

Video: A Study in Medical and Scientific Racism In America | WGBHForum (YouTube)

Udodiri R. Okwandu is a Doctorate student in the History of Science at Harvard University studying the links between social and science. She works to trace the histories of unethical medical practices used in the United States from the 19th century to present a history of racial inequality within the medical treatment industry. This video is long but definitely worth the watch and explores some topics not covered in this article.

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