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Pandemic Highlights History of Racial Inequity in Healthcare Delivery

By Lilya Eid and Udgita Pamidigantam, 2023 Governor's STEM Scholars

There are many viruses that have had more focus in recent years. One we believe has been overlooked is systemic racism.

We rely greatly on the care and expertise of our primary care physicians and other medical specialists. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism was deeply rooted in our country’s healthcare system. It spreads from limited access to COVID-19 vaccines to lower quality care in minority groups and it is vital that policymakers and healthcare practitioners be made aware of this prominent issue in order to take action and end it.

It is undeniable that Black Americans receive a lower quality of health care. After surgery, many Black patients are discharged earlier than the appropriate time. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reported that this is discrimination against certain racial/ethnic groups.

Historically, there have been many incidents that led to today’s racial injustices. For example, an African American woman suffering from cervical cancer in 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge and consent and have since been used in innumerable studies and research. She unfortunately passed away before she saw the major scientific breakthroughs of her cells and her family has never been compensated for their use.

In 1932, in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, there were 400 Black men with syphilis who were told they had “bad blood”, and no treatment was offered even after one was discovered. NAM states that Black patients with heart conditions receive cheaper, older treatments in comparison to their white counterparts; those with bipolar disorder are prescribed antipsychotics, which has negative effects. These heartbreaking incidents must be used as a guide for us to advocate for change and order in healthcare today.

Maternal care in minority groups is of significantly less quality which affects the overall health of the mother and her baby. Black and American Indian or Alaska Native expectant mothers have been found to have pregnancy-related mortality rates that are about three times higher than white expectant mothers. Why does this happen? Racially biased healthcare professionals or inaccessible care promoted by insurance companies? Both are true. In the past, many women of color lost insurance after the Medicaid postpartum coverage period because of difficulty in gaining insurance coverage for parents. This issue prevails today due to social and economic differences. Women of color are also more affected by pregnancy-related risks as their healthcare providers are often not quick to listen to them. One study showed that Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black women reported much higher rates of mistreatment, which included scolding, shouting, or ignoring requests from healthcare professionals, during their pregnancy.

Unfortunately, racial bias in healthcare extends to access to vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted billions of people globally and planted a seed for improvement of our policies, methods, and ideologies. A study conducted on early vaccine distribution found that healthcare facilities with higher Black populations were less likely to serve as vaccine-sites in May 2021, compounding barriers to access for many populations. Racial bias in healthcare has been prevalent throughout history, and is still an issue today. It is necessary to shine a light on these issues and bring awareness, not only by educating healthcare professionals and our local communities, but by connecting with insurance providers and policymakers. Through collective action, we can ensure that policies and actions are changed to provide more equitable access to care for all communities.

Lilya Eid is a first-year biology major at Stevens Institute of Technology. She aspires to pursue a career in healthcare, advocating for the rights and well-being of others, while learning more about the fascinating world of STEM.

Udgita Pamidigantam is a junior at Thomas Edison Energysmart Charter School and is pursuing an Associate of Science Degree at Raritan Valley Community College. She is passionate about contributing to innovations in biomedical sciences to tackle global health challenges. Lilya and Udgita are both 2023 Governor’s STEM Scholars.


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