Medical Discrimination Affects Black Women 

There must be a concerted effort to increase representation in clinical trials and research studies. There are still many inequalities we must fix.

Student Commentary

By Kennedy Denton / Contributor || Edited by Alexandra Nava-Baltimore 

Photo by Klaus Nielsen  

Reflecting on women’s events this past month, it is essential to note that even though we have made great strides in gender equity, there are still many inequalities we must fix. For example, medical discrimination against Black women has been a long-standing issue in healthcare sector that has garnered increased attention in recent years. From misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment to lack of access to healthcare, Black women have long faced significant barriers when trying to receive quality healthcare. 

The history of medical discrimination dates back to slavery in the United States, where Black women were subjected to inhumane medical experimentation without consent. Specifically, enslaved Black women were used as “guinea pigs” for medical experiments, such as gynecological surgeries, without anesthesia or proper medical care by doctors such as J. Marion Sims during the late 1830s. This exploitation continued even after the abolition of slavery in 1865, as Black women were still used for medical experimentation without their knowledge or consent. During the 20th century, they were excluded from clinical trials and medical research, which led to a lack of understanding of how diseases and medical conditions may present differently in Black women compared to their white male counterparts. This exclusion resulted in inadequate medical care and perpetuated health disparities. For example, Black women were often misdiagnosed with schizophrenia instead of depression, leading to poor treatment and poorer health outcomes. 

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a well-known example of medical discrimination against Black people, including women. The study, conducted without informed consent from 1932 to 1972, followed the progression of syphilis in a group of Black men, even though a cure for syphilis was available at the time. As a result, the participants were not given adequate medical care, leading to severe health complications and death. The study also indirectly affected the wives and children of the participants, who were not given medical treatment for syphilis despite being infected. 

Photo by Laura James 

Healthcare providers, including physicians and nurses, may still keep unconscious biases that lead to differential treatment of Black patients. According to the CDC, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. This is due to the fact that their physicians are not taking their complaints seriously, as opposed to the popular misconception that there are issues with prenatal care. This phenomenon is not solely within poverty-stricken communities, celebrities like Beyonce, Serena Williams and Alison Felix had issues around pregnancy and childbirth and were ignored. There are stages before these statists become a reality, as there are multiple opportunities to give adequate healthcare to black women during their most vulnerable times. The lack of culturally competent doctors and nurses can result in Black women being dismissed or belittled when presenting their symptoms, leading to misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. Additionally, these biases can lead to underestimation of pain in Black women, resulting in suboptimal pain management and treatment. Society’s idea that Black women are hypersexual, paired with the inherent dehumanization of black people, has led to forced sterilization and inadequate reproductive healthcare worldwide. 

There must be a concerted effort to increase representation in clinical trials and research studies to address medical discrimination against black women. This will allow for a better understanding of how diseases and medical conditions present in Black women, leading to more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans. Healthcare providers must also undergo training to recognize and address implicit biases.  

Several systemic barriers to healthcare must be addressed, including increasing access to affordable healthcare, providing transportation assistance and ensuring adequate health insurance coverage. Community outreach programs can also be implemented to provide education and resources to underserved communities, leading to better health outcomes and increased trust in the healthcare system. 

Medical discrimination against Black women is a complex and multifaceted issue requiring a systemic approach. Through increased representation in research studies, education and training for healthcare providers and addressing systemic barriers to healthcare access, we can begin to tackle this issue and work towards a more equitable and just healthcare system. Only through these efforts can we ensure that Black women receive the quality healthcare they deserve.