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It's Time for the Medical Field to Do Some Healing of Its Own

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said.

Many people believe the medical field is immune to societal issues such as racism and discrimination. The truth is, however, the medical field and medical professionals invariably subscribe to an inherently racialized system just like the rest of society.

Dr. Damon Tweedy, M.D., has experienced this racialized atmosphere since the moment he entered Duke University’s School of Medicine. On Thursday, Tweedy shared his experiences with racism at all stages of his medical career during his lecture "Black Man in a White Coat," as part of the Park Street Corporation Speaker Series.

He entered medical school hoping medicine would transcend racism; however, his background as a lower-class Black man impeded his ability to have a similar experience to his peers.

One of the most disheartening experiences that Tweedy endured took place early in his medical school career. In the first week of school, Tweedy entered one of his first classes only for his professor to ask if he was there to fix the lights. From that moment on, Tweedy worked day and night to earn one of the highest grades in the class, but his professor still didn’t believe that he was capable of getting that grade.

In many cases, medical issues are more about social and economic factors rather than biological factors or genetics. To explore this bias during his time in medical school, Tweedy ventured 90 minutes away from Duke once a month to small, underprivileged towns.

“It felt like I was going back in time, like I was suddenly in the 50s,” said Tweedy.

The clinics he attended were often one room trailers with holes in the floor and minimal equipment. When a patient came in with high blood pressure, Tweedy had no way to treat her. Unlike wealthier, more populated areas in the United States, impoverished towns receive little to no access to adequate healthcare.

When compared to the white population of the U.S., people of color on average have lower levels of health insurance coverage, along with unequal access to education, affordable housing, healthy food, and livable wages. Both racism and discrimination are deeply ingrained in the political, economic, and social systems of our nation and the world, which translate into health care disparities among minorities. For example, the life expectancy difference between Black and white men is nine years, seven years for women.

At the end of each biomedical discussion of a disease in medical school, the conversation transitions into the demographics of each disease. Tweedy noticed that each conversation concluded with a discussion on the impact on Black people versus white people.

Likewise, he noted that each disease was more common among Black people, or the survival rate was much lower. It was difficult for him to shake the feeling that being Black is bad for your health. This is a result of implicit biases that consistently racializes many different institutions, including health care systems.

So what can be done? It can be incredibly difficult to change the biases within each person, but the first step lies in policy change. Dr. Tweedy recommends that we remove the political biases from health care policy and focus on the distribution of health care among all populations. Since not everyone can be involved in health care policy, Tweedy recommends being comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

He reminded the audience to “never lose sight of the power you have as individuals.” We do not need to be doctors, lawyers, or politicians to change the culture around race and health care; it can start with a conversation.

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