Three things Black people should know about healthcare (Part 2)

Check out Part 1 of this series on tips for avoiding medical debt.

Part 2: Don’t expect to receive unbiased care

With an impressive record of 23 Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals, you would expect that one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time would recognize when she’s experiencing severe pain. However, following the birth of her first child, Serena Williams almost lost her life when her escalating symptoms were not taken seriously by medical staff.

She had a history of blood clots and knew her distressed breathing along with the unbearable pain she was experiencing needed to be addressed. But still, she had to fight for help. Though she told her nurse she needed a CAT scan and treatment immediately, the nurse responded, “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.”

“I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t move at all—not my legs, not my back, nothing.”

Serena Williams

Even as an olympic athlete, Serena was not exempt from the racial bias Black Americans are confronted with in the healthcare system, bias that can lead to disparities in pain management and overall quality of care. This racial bias stems from misconceptions about biological differences between Black and white people. Even in 2016, 40% of first- and second-year medical students believed that “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s skin.”

This misguided perception directly influences the treatment recommendations for pain and illness experienced by Black people, exacerbating disparities in healthcare. This issue is particularly concerning for individuals suffering from conditions like sickle cell disease, fibromyalgia, lupus, and endometriosis, which are frequently misdiagnosed or misunderstood and disproportionately affect Black people. Black people are also less likely than white people to be given appropriate cardiac care, receive kidney dialysis or organ transplants, and to receive the best treatments for stroke, cancer, or AIDS.

More than half of Black adults say they’ve had at least one negative interaction with doctors or other health care providers, with about a third saying that their pain was not taken seriously or that their provider has rushed them. Black women in particular have some of the worst health outcomes of any group in the United States regardless of income level, and are at least three times more likely to die due to a pregnancy-related cause when compared to white women. 

Ironically, Black women are either considered impervious to pain because of their race, or overly dramatic about pain because of their gender. It certainly doesn’t help that enslaved black women were the subject of experimental surgeries without anesthesia, beginning a body of work that continues to misrepresent how Black women experience pain.

So what can you do for better healthcare?

Speak up to get proper care

Don’t hesitate to ask questions until all your concerns are addressed. More than half of Black women say they had to speak up to get proper care. Consider enlisting a trusted family member or friend to serve as your advocate; they can pose questions you may overlook when feeling sick or stressed. Be empowered by educating yourself about your health conditions, including understanding the medical tests you undergo and your treatment plan. 

Given that care team members may not always communicate effectively, it’s advisable to request comprehensive communication among them to ensure the most appropriate treatment approach for you. If navigating your healthcare journey feels overwhelming, consider seeking assistance from a case manager. These healthcare professionals serve as patient advocates, offering guidance, care coordination, and support to ensure you receive the care you need, allowing you to focus on your well-being.

“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me.”

Serena Williams
Document your own medical history

It’s important not to assume that your doctor will have comprehensive knowledge of your medical history, even if it should be readily available in your electronic health record (EHR). Unfortunately, EHRs can often be incomplete, posing a challenge for doctors striving to understand your overall health picture.

To improve the likelihood of receiving appropriate and timely care, consider keeping relevant health documents from the past year easily accessible. This includes summaries and notes from doctor visits, test results, records of past surgeries, accidents, and hospitalizations, as well as information regarding any prescriptions you’ve been given. By proactively providing this information, you can assist your healthcare provider in delivering the most effective care  your needs.

Find a trusted provider

If you feel that your healthcare provider isn’t listening to your concerns or supporting you in achieving your health goals, find a new provider. Advocating for your health is essential, and having the ability to choose your care provider is a powerful tool in this process.

Start by researching which doctors are in-network and possess the expertise necessary to address your specific health needs. If you prefer, you may also explore the option of finding a Black doctor or someone with a similar cultural background to better understand your unique perspective and experiences.

Given that only 5% of physicians and surgeons nationwide are Black, seeking recommendations from friends, family, and other trusted individuals within your network can be invaluable in finding a provider who aligns with your preferences and values. Don’t hesitate to explore your options until you find a healthcare partner who truly listens and supports your well-being.