I don’t think I know a single black person that doesn’t suffer from medical mistrust.
It stems from slavery, unsurprisingly, when enslaved people were often used as guinea pigs for experiments that now serve as the basis for a lot of our modern medical science. Many medical biases still persist among doctors today such as the thinking that black people have a higher pain tolerance and thicker skin, to name a few.
Black people are often taught, or eventually learn, that doctors do not really see or care about our pain. We tend to rely on self-medication or old practices when we are ill to not just avoid the ever-so-high medical bill but also avoid being told, “nothing is wrong” despite knowing otherwise. Because of that, we can often miss signs of certain illnesses. This is one of the reasons why black women are almost one and a half times more likely to die from cervical cancer than white women.
Cancer is a terribly scary diagnosis. But cervical cancer is, luckily, highly preventable if caught early enough. It usually comes with a five-year survival rate.
Every black person I know can recall either their family or themselves facing biases in the medical setting. For me personally, my brother was told for years that they couldn’t diagnose him or that he was merely constipated.
In reality, he had a rare case of Hirschprung’s disease, which means he had missing nerve cells in his large intestine. This is a disease that, more often than not, is caught in infancy. But my brother was in his late 20s and near death when he was finally properly diagnosed.
Stories like my brother’s cause the generational mistrust of doctors and the healthcare systems. We are told from young ages stories of the Tuskegee experiment. We learn how our bodies are taken from us without consent like what happened to Henrietta Lacks. These horrors that we faced in history and still face today result in the very real fear of medical practice that will not go away. It seems almost every day we unwrap something new about how a black person was used without consent to benefit the medical field, or we hear how a black person who should’ve had an easy birth died because of these biases, leaving a newborn without a parent.
However, there are a group of people with new stories. They advocate for their treatment and how they had a good hospital experience and were truly healed. Hearing these stories from people who look like you helps to heal the harm brought on by what was done to our ancestors.
But I don’t know if I see medical mistrust ending anytime soon.
Things that were told as conspiracy theories were later revealed to be truths. To know that you may be agreeing to some experiment unknowingly is always in the back of my head when I go to the doctors, and I myself am an advocate for healthcare. If that kind of fear is in me, I can only imagine what it is like for my community.
One way that black people can try to combat this is by showing the community that people like them are in the roles of power that once harmed them —either by working as a scientist, or in the health field, or by creating advocacy groups and going from place to place to share their stories and how they survived. Stories are a way that black Americans tend to get their truths from, so let’s hope more people sharing how they were healed may encourage later generations to lessen the medical mistrust we all feel.