Racial‌ Disparities‌ ‌in‌ ‌Medicine‌

Black healthcare summit addresses gaps in medical treatment for black women.

Historically, medical research has been almost exclusively conducted on white, and primarily male subjects. As a result, ethnic minorities have been neglected by the modern healthcare system and few have felt this more deeply than Black women. On October 6, the Women’s College Hospital Foundation (WCHF) of Toronto held a virtual summit on October 6th of last week to discuss Black healthcare, which focused on the need for medical research and the unique problems faced by Black women.

The summit consisted of eight prominent Black healthcare experts from Toronto, six of whom were women. The eight spokespeople were divided into seven panelists and a moderator. Experts on the panel ranged from practicing doctors to medical researchers and from medical directors to professors. The diverse group allowed for lively debates and an engaging panel, which began with an overview of the medical community’s deeply ingrained stigmas against Black women. 

Led by moderator Jennifer Bernard, president and CEO of WCHF, panelists laid out the history behind the erasure of Black women in medicine. “We all know this isn’t a new issue,” Bernard said, “400 years on and Black struggles are at the forefront of the collective consciousness again. But unfortunately those struggles aren’t much different than what our ancestors faced. This time we need to enact real change, for the future of our Black women, for the future of our Black youth.”

Next the panel explored the trickle down effects of colonialist medicine, focusing particularly on 19th and 20th century developments which continue to negate all people of colour, but women and Back women in particular. “In the 80’s and 90’s the medical community started to notice that women and men display different symptoms for many ailments,” Dr. Marissa Joseph explained, “so more medical research was done, specifically for women. Black people display different symptoms too, we know this! We’ve known this at least since the 90’s, and yet medical research on Black people has barely increased.”

Lydia-Joi Marshall, vice-president of the Black Health Alliance and a research associate with the same organization, got to the heart of the discussion: the vitality for current research to focus on the unique needs of Black women. “The facts and figures are out there,” she said, referring to the 2019 paper by Dr. Virginia Tanger entitled ‘Racial and ethnic disparities in maternal outcomes and the disadvantage of peripartum black women: a multistate analysis, 2007–2014′ “Black women are indisputably the most vulnerable group in our country right now, and continue to be let down by our healthcare system. Now, more than ever, we need to be allocating funds and researchers to address the health crisis of Black women.”

Dr. Med Rashid, medical director of the Crossroads Clinic at WCHF, agreed. “Black women are up to six times more likely to experience fatal pregnancy complications,” he said, “this isn’t because Black pregnancy is inherently more dangerous, it is the failure of the medical institutions. Pregnancy is a well studied area of healthcare, and it is clearly failing our Black women. I’ll say that again, a well studied area is failing our Black women. Imagine how let down Black women are in other areas of medicine even less researched.” He continued, “just as Lydia said, this is a health crisis. Black women are dying of completely preventable causes.” 

Organizations like WCHF and the Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario have been pushing for greater representation of Black women in medical research in Canada over the past decade, as pointed out by the latter organization’s president Dr. Onye Nnorom during the summit. But even with these efforts in graining ethnic and sexual minorities into commonplace medicare is a slow process. “Research takes years to influence mainstream medicine,” Dr. Nnorom said, “I hope with this current climate around racial injustice that something can finally be done. I hope that in 5 years a panel like this won’t need to happen.”

Zoë Wright
Zoë is a contributor to the Argosy.