Steps Black Patients Can Take to Survive the U.S. Healthcare System

Steps Black Patients Can Take to Survive the U.S. Healthcare System

“The day my son was born in 1997 was the best and worst moment of my life,” says Houston communications consultant Erika Stuart. Fortunately, Stuart’s son came into the world safe and sound, but she will never forget how while in the hospital, her concerns were ignored by the attending nurse as she hemorrhaged after the delivery.

More than 20 years later, tennis great Serena Williams shared a similar story of dismissal by hospital staff where she said she “almost died,” suspecting blood clots in her lungs after the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Williams nearly became part of the statistic that Black women are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy or delivery complications than white women in the United States.

Maternal mortality is only one facet of a larger issue around Black people receiving quality healthcare in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, centuries of racism has had a “profound and negative impact on communities of color,” leading to vast inequities across a range of social and economic factors and significant risk for poor health outcomes.

“Systemic racism, inherent biases, and healthcare disparities create a bleak situation for Black people,” says Lisa Mallory, executive director of the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE).

“Receiving equitable medical care for us can be an uphill battle, no matter who you are or where you come from.”

Consider the story of Dr. Susan Moore — a Black medical doctor who made national headlines in 2020 after her Facebook video went viral, alleging racial bias while admitted to Indiana University Health North Hospital in Indianapolis. Dr. Moore, who was being treated for COVID-19, was also experiencing severe neck pain. In her video, she described how her doctor ignored her concerns and made her “feel like a drug addict” after requesting pain medicine. Sadly, just three weeks after being admitted to the hospital, Dr. Moore passed away from COVID-19.

Dr. Moore’s experience is no surprise, given what we know. Research tells us that Black Americans are 34% less likely than white Americans to be prescribed opioids for backaches, abdominal pain, and migraines. In 2016, a scientific journal published research stating that half of medical students and residents believe in myths that Black people having thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people — another factor contributing to racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment.

Mallory asserts, “Although we as Black people continue to face deep challenges receiving the quality care we deserve, we do have the power to take charge of our medical experiences and wellness.”

Taking control

One of the first things patients can do to limit their interactions in the medical system is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The leading causes of death worldwide are chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and stroke. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 80% of chronic diseases are the result of lifestyle choices. Through healthy habits, you can slow or even reverse diabetes, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease.

Second, consider getting another opinion for major medical issues and surgery. The healthcare journal BMJ Quality and Safety found that approximately 12 million adults are misdiagnosed in the U.S. every year. This is reason enough alone to explore a second opinion. Moreover, when your gut is telling you something feels “off” with your doctor or the diagnosis you’ve been given — don’t hesitate to talk to another doctor about it. You owe it to yourself to understand your diagnosis and treatment plan and to feel comfortable with the care you are receiving. Don’t settle. Challenge your doctor and even your insurance plan if it is necessary for you to get another medical opinion.

Also, if poor communication with your doctor is an issue, try to improve it. A recent study found that 75% of doctors believe they communicate satisfactorily with their patients. However, only 21% of their patients share this sentiment.

The first thing you can do before any appointment is to take notes and make sure you and your doctor discuss what’s on your mind. Have your questions ready, and make sure you understand what you’re being told. According to Dr. Leana Wen, author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, another way to improve communication with your doctor is through storytelling. Also, consider taking a friend, family member, or person that can join in advocating for you. Sometimes we get caught up in emotions or a diagnosis, and everything else is foggy.

Wen explains that doctors typically end up asking about symptoms, which leads to patients responding to yes-no questions in place of telling their stories. For example, instead of just saying your stomach hurts, tell the story of when it started, if it’s been painful before, what you were doing when you first felt it, how it felt and how often you feel the pain. Wen says that over 80% of diagnoses can be made just by listening, and if patients are allowed to tell their stories, it can help them feel heard.

“It’s critical that Black people advocate for themselves and to speak up and be assertive when necessary to get the medical care they need,” says Mallory.

“You don’t have to settle. Do what you can to find medical providers you can trust, who make you feel comfortable and will listen to you. This is why NAHSE promotes greater participation of minority groups in the health field. Representation matters.”

Writer and communications specialist Erika Poplar contributed to this story.