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Is there a Black doctor in the house? Why racial disparity in health care demands our attention now

April 20, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
While Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, only 5% of medical doctors are African American.
Shannon Fagan—Getty Images

Would you believe me if I told you that white American women are 243% more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes than women of color because they struggle to find physicians who look like them and understand them?

Of course you wouldn’t—and shouldn’t. If that were true, billionaires would fix it. Medical schools would scramble to widen their doors to white female applicants and better cultural research. Middle school STEM classes and summer camps would be dedicated to grooming future white gynecologists, biologists, and geneticists to stem the tide.

And yet not nearly enough is being done for the very real victims of these statistics: Black women. 

“Kira was allowed to bleed internally for more than 10 hours while [we] begged and pleaded with the staff to take action,” Charles Johnson tells us. Kira, Johnson’s healthy wife, died shortly after a planned C-section and the birth of her second child. “We were ignored, we were talked down to, we were given the runaround … [until] it was far too late.”

Johnson thought his wife’s case was an anomaly, but he now knows the truth: Black women are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. And for every death, there are 70 near-misses, explained Rep. Lauren Underwood on a recent episode of Real Talk, Real Change, the OZY show I host.

Maternal mortality is just one alarming statistic. We know that Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts. Poor access to health care and a lack of cultural understanding yield poor outcomes not just in maternity wards; they also lead to higher rates of chronic disease for people of color.

Why? It starts with a lack of representation. While Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, only 5% of medical doctors are Black, and those who do make it to medical school often are made to feel like they don’t belong. But there’s also a shocking lack of cultural understanding. Half of white medical trainees in 2016 said they believe Black patients have thicker skin and don’t feel pain as acutely as others. 

Many Americans have faced more mental health strains in the past year perhaps than ever before. Yet only 5% of psychologists in America are Black. In fact, an OZY investigation revealed that even the testing for psychologist licensing in America disfavors candidates of color. Meanwhile, only one in three African Americans who needs mental health care receives it—and that was pre-pandemic.

Race-based health disparities are a personal concern for me, Underwood, and Sen. Cory Booker, who also joined us on the recent episode. For Underwood, a nurse practitioner, it was one of her classmates from Johns Hopkins dying three weeks after childbirth that inspired her to take action on this issue in Congress. Booker lives in an underserved part of Newark, a predominately Black and Latino city where health problems like diabetes and asthma far outpace the rest of the nation. Personally, I lost my mother to kidney cancer after repeated concerns about unusual pain were dismissed and downplayed by her doctor.

Step one should be building a pipeline of Black doctors who can better understand their Black patients. After all, we know that medical outcomes improve for Black patients when they are treated by physicians who look like them. Imagine creating Black, top-tier hospitals—medical institutions geared toward employing and serving Black Americans—and the game-changing impact that would make. Real change will take a concerted effort on the part of medical schools to diversify their applicant pools and better support the Black students who make it into their ranks.

There’s also the Momnibus Act, a package of 12 bills cosponsored by Booker and Underwood that would attack the issue of Black maternal mortality from multiple angles—through funding housing, transportation, and nutrition. It would improve conditions for moms in prison, veteran moms, and moms battling substance abuse and mental health issues. And it would expand and diversify our perinatal workforce.

After the brutal losses—and racial reckoning—of this past year, we need to ensure that each and every one of our citizens is seen, heard, and cared for at the most basic level. There’s been too much death and needless suffering. The Presidential Proclamation and initial actions announced by the White House last week were a great start, but we all need to be vigilant and act. 

Carlos Watson is CEO and cofounder of OZY Media.