Racism in Healthcare and How to Stop It

Featured image: Image by Rawpixel on Shutterstock. Edited in Affinity Designer.


4 for Now

Jahi McMath bled for hours after a routine tonsil-removal surgery in 2013 while nurses dismissed her. Her grandmother, a nurse herself, called for help after midnight. While intubating Jahi, one doctor said, “Oh, shit, her heart stopped.” Doctors declared Jahi “brain-dead” two days later. For five years, her family continued their fight for doctors to treat her.

Jahi McMath was not brain dead or any other kind of dead,” her mother said in a statement after Jahi’s death. “She was a little girl who deserved to be cared for and protected not called a dead body.”

This is far from an isolated incident. The US “healthcare” system is built on racial bias [PDF] that results in anyone who isn’t white receiving worse care than if they had been white.

Data Illustrating Racism in US Healthcare

Not to mention the racism doctors of color experience, or that medical education is mainly about the white experience of health and disease [PDF]. There are countless studies, observations, and personal tales showing us it’s all true. But we white folks still accept it as if there’s nothing we can do.

How the Healthcare Industry Can Reduce Racism

The 2003 study “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” made several recommendations on how to improve equity within the healthcare industry, including:

  • Increase awareness of racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare among the public, key stakeholders, and healthcare providers.
  • Increase the proportion of underrepresented U.S. racial and ethnic minorities among health professionals.
  • Limit provider incentives that may promote disparities while providing incentives for practices that reduce barriers and encourage evidence-based practice.
  • Integrate cross-cultural education into the training of all current and future health professionals.

The AMA has proposed a strategic plan for 2021-2023 [PDF. Strategy starts on page 45, specific actions on page 60] that calls on the industry to address inequity issues, and a group of doctors have recommended their antiracist approach.

But what can those of us outside of healthcare do to help? See my suggestions in 4 for Later below.


4 for Later

  1. Learn more about racial health inequity in healthcare via Coursera courses. You can access the material for free: History of Racial Inequity in Healthcare, Causes of Racial Inequity in Healthcare, and Achieving Health Equity in Healthcare. (To access the assignments for certification, you have to subscribe or purchase the certification for that course.)
  2. When you see racist behavior from a medical practitioner, call it out. If you see a racist representation of healthcare or disease, call it out. The less acceptable we make racism in healthcare, the more motivated the industry is to stop it. (See this PDF on when and how to call someone out or call someone in.)
  3. Support your local community health center. Donate, volunteer, sing their praises … ask what they need and give what you can! (The community health center model addresses social needs that contribute to health inequities.)
  4. Towards the bottom of this page is a list of things folks in different industries can do to take action on healthcare equity (there’s a box to the side with steps for everyone).