Race and health

As often happens with tragedies like the death of Mike Brown, as the shock has worn off a little for those not in the immediate vicinity of Ferguson, a single striking event has turned thoughts to broader, related issues. In this case, the biggest issue is being most widely discussed is clearly racism, but that's too simple a description.

In the days since Brown's death, I have seen reported articles and editorials discussing everything from police militarization (particularly in black communities), how poverty impacts crime (particularly in those same communities), how black and white people perceive the police and their actions differently, and how the experiences of black women often get drowned out by outrage over police violence against black men.

Today, I came across something that hit on yet another part of life touched by racial inequality in our country: health care.

I've become increasingly interested in everything health-related over the last several years, for both personal and professional reasons, so I've been spending more time studying how our health system works and how people of different backgrounds experience it. This piece in Vox today explores how white privilege -- that unrequested, unearned position those of us with white skin have over those with darker complexions thanks to the structure of our culture -- may extend not just to hiring and police treatment and incarceration and media representation, but to how we are treated by our doctors as well.

Emotions are running high on all sides with all of the talk about race over the last couple of weeks. I have been told by multiple friends that if the media would just stop talking about racism, if we would just stop reminding everyone that some white people hate black people, things would be better. Though I certainly think there is room to improve in the way that we cover such things, I am happy to see that many publications are not shying away from this topic, because the fact remains that people of different races experience life differently. That problem won't be solved by ignoring it. So it's with that mindset that I read this Vox piece, which, regardless of your feelings about how we talk about race, shares some really interesting statistics:

  • Black women have a 43 percent higher risk than white women for delivering their babies prematurely. They are also between two and three times as likely to have babies dangerously early, in less than 32 weeks.
  • When it comes to nursing, black mothers are consistently less likely to breastfeed than white mothers, despite the guidelines suggesting all mothers do so because of well-documented health benefits. This gap has been explained by everything from preference to a lack of access and education about health benefits, to a dearth of support for new moms.
  • In childhood, black kids are more likely to suffer asthma and obesity.
  • By the end of a life, all these health disadvantages add up to a lifespan that's cut short: black men can stillexpect to live five years fewer than white men, and black women can expect to live four years fewer than white women. There are no biological or genetic explanations for this difference.

One doctor who spoke to Vox also argues that even the "microaggressions," the small, possibly even subconscious acts of racism that black people experience on a daily basis, can have a negative impact on their health, increasing stress and weakening the immune system.

It's an interesting piece, and a very interesting topic that I think deserves more attention. I'd be interested to see how women of all races fare in their health care experiences in comparison to men, and maybe how mothers fare in comparison to women who don't have children. And what about those with disabilities? What about transgender patients? It seems that the research on patient experience has only reached the tip of the iceberg, and as many hospital systems begin to move toward "population health," focusing on the ailments and opportunities present in the demographics of their particular community, an understanding of different experiences will be vital to creating more parity.