John M. Hoberman, chair of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has a fascinating new book out about racial bias in medicine. It's called Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism. To say that Hoberman's findings are unsettling would be an understatement. Some of Hoberman's conclusions about racism in medicine are just downright scary. Hoberman found, for example, that black patients routinely do not receive the same treatment options that white patients receive, a discrepancy that has no doubt cost countless blacks their lives. He also found that doctors receive little to no training about race relations in medical school.
"What is conveyed to medical students with regard to the history of medical racism in America is like next to nothing," Hoberman told John L. Hanson Jr., host of KUT Austin radio program "In Black America" during a recent interview. "What is done for medical students to try to prepare them to deal with the racial divide is in my view, and in the published views of experts in the field, entirely inadequate."
And if you think doctors are any better at navigating race than the general public is, think again. According to Hoberman: "Doctors in general have long benefited from a kind of halo effect, the expectation that what is seen as a humane life-saving profession is going to improve the characters and the personal standards and the sensibilities of the people who are responsible for taking care of patients. The bad news is that it doesn't seem to work that way."
He says that doctors aren't more racially enlightened than other groups, meaning that racism inevitably leaks into the standard of care that patients of color receive. The problem is that many people of color remain wary of doctors anyway--and with good reason. From the 1930s to the 1970s about a third of Puerto Rican women endured government-sanctioned sterilizations. During the same period, the U.S. government allowed syphilis to ravage the bodies of black men in Tuskegee, Ala. But Hoberman says that blacks' distrust of the medical establishment didn't begin there. He says it dates back to slavery when African Americans in bondage received substandard care from plantation doctors.
Hoberman's findings underscore the need for more black doctors. Just three percent of U.S. doctors are African American, he says. His findings also underscore that the medical establishment needs to be educated about the history of racism in medicine and about institutional racism generally. If diversity training will help doctors save more lives, there's certainly no excuse for medical schools not to equip physicians with the tools needed to curb and deconstruct their racial biases.