This is Race and Medicine, a series dedicated to unearthing the uncomfortable and sometimes life-threatening truth about racism in healthcare. By highlighting the experiences of Black people and honoring their health journeys, we look to a future where medical racism is a thing of the past.
Being a doctor is a unique role. It involves knowing some of the most intimate things about a person, but not really knowing them as a person at all.
The patient’s job is to be transparent about their health, and the doctor’s job is to listen objectively to symptoms and fears to choose the most logical diagnosis.
Racial bias in the medical field disrupts the trust needed for this relationship to function.
A biased doctor might disbelieve symptoms or their severity and misdiagnose a condition.
A patient may come to mistrust the doctor, not attend appointments, not follow instructions, or stop sharing key information because history tells them they aren’t taken seriously.
Reducing bias is critical to eliminating health disparities, especially for Black women.
My run-in with bias
Several years ago, I experienced medical bias when I started having headaches multiple times per week. I had had migraine before, but this was different.
I felt like I was dragging my body through heavy resistance, like encountering an undertow. I was losing weight. No matter how much water I drank, I was always thirsty and rushing to the bathroom around the clock.
It seemed I could never eat enough to feel full. When I tried to avoid overeating, I became fatigued, my vision blurred, and I had so much trouble focusing it was hard to drive.
My primary care physician (PCP) cut me off when I tried to explain.
She congratulated me for losing weight and said I just needed to let my brain adjust to food deprivation. When I explained I wasn’t dieting, she sent me to a headache specialist.
The headache specialist prescribed a medication that didn’t help. I knew they weren’t migraine headaches, but no one listened, even as my fatigue and disorientation increased.
Once, I even had trouble finding my own house.
By my sixth visit, the symptoms were massively disrupting my life. I wondered if I had type 2 diabetes because of family history. My symptoms seemed to match.
I knew of a test called HbA1c that provides a snapshot of blood sugar levels. I insisted on being tested. My doctor said she would order labs based on my demographics.
I thought I was finally getting somewhere — but when the receptionist at the lab printed the list of tests, HbA1c wasn’t present. Instead, it was tests for common STDs.
I was humiliated, overwhelmed, and no closer to having answers. In the parking lot, I broke down and cried.
When Black people share instances of racism, it’s often disregarded as playing the ‘race card’ or as an isolated incident. It’s much more difficult to explain subtle racism than it is to explain blatant acts like burning crosses and