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The Medical Community Has Failed People of Color in the Past: These Doctors Want to Build Trust

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The nation’s leading organization of Black physicians has set up an expert task force to vet regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.SEAN LOCKE / Stocksy
  • The National Medical Association, the nation’s leading organization of Black physicians, set up an expert task force to vet regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.
  • It will also look at recommendations for tackling the pandemic, which continues to disproportionately affect Black Americans and other communities of color.
  • A study found only 32 percent of Black adults said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through the United States, highlighting racial inequities in healthcare.

The numbers of infections and deaths related to COVID-19 are far higher among people of color, especially Black Americans, than among white Americans.

Black Americans make up 13 percent of the nation’s population but account for an estimated one-quarter of deaths due to the new coronavirus.

Despite these higher risks, Black Americans are less likely to sign up for experimental medical treatments or potential vaccines.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 32 percent of Black adults said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available. In contrast, 52 percent of white adults said they would.

The reluctance is rooted in centuries of mistrust in a healthcare industry that has a history of experimenting on Black people, sometimes without their knowledge or consent, and a history of persistent healthcare disparities.

To help bridge this gap and champion the interests of Black people and other marginalized groups during the pandemic, the National Medical Association, the nation’s leading organization of Black physicians, set up an expert task force to vet regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

The task force will also vet government recommendations for tackling the pandemic, which continues to disproportionately affect Black people and other communities of color.

The 30,000-member association’s action comes in the wake of recent concerns about the politicization of some of the nation’s leading public health and scientific organizations tasked with vetting the approval of new drugs or vaccines, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“We are more interested in efficacy,” said Dr. Bret Hughes, a professor of ophthalmology at Wayne State University and longtime member of the National Medical Association.

He added that the process for vetting vaccines and other kinds of medications is very regimented and specific, and has two goals: safety first and then effectiveness.

But “there are political groups that are willing to bypass those procedures and say there is a vaccine in order to quell fears. In fact, you can take a vaccine and develop other conditions because there’s more in the vaccine no one is aware of until you get it.”

In many ways, the National Medical Association is doing what it has done since it was founded in 1895 as an organization to advocate for the interests of Black physicians and patients during an era when the American Medical Association barred membership to Black people.

Over the years, it has been involved in a host of social justice and civil rights causes. In the early 1900s, it was a champion of national health insurance. During the civil rights movement, it teamed up with the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, on several causes.

The National Medical Association has become more inclusive over its 125 years of existence and now advocates for other communities of color and the disadvantaged.

But even with many of the changes over the century, progress toward racial equity in healthcare has been tepid.

“Fast-forward to 2020, we still have a lot of inequity in healthcare and people’s access to healthcare and how people are treated,” Hughes said.

Dr. Rick Baker, a professor of ophthalmology and vice dean for medical education at Wayne State University and a longtime National Medical Association member, said the association will be doing three things in vetting vaccines: making sure whatever is developed is scientifically sound and effective; assessing whether there’s adequate representation of people of color in the trials; and ensuring that the distribution of the vaccine is equitable.

In these uncertain times, he added, someone needs to be the trusted messenger, adding that physicians are uniquely qualified to be that messenger.

“The message needs to be transmitted from physicians to patients,” he said. “The physician-to-patient relationship is very important.”

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine and director of the school’s Equity Research and Innovation Center, added, “There is a tsunami of misinformation across all of those (social media) platforms. Your best, and typically most trusted, sources of advice regarding vaccination will be your own healthcare providers and your local public health officials.”

“On an individual basis, patients trust their physicians one-on-one, but in thinking of the medical establishment as a whole, the trust is not there,” said Dr. Mahalia Desruisseaux, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

“There are so many facets that contribute to the state of the relationship between the Black community and the healthcare industry,” Desruisseaux said. “It is not just due to mistrust. The absence of this relationship in several instances is a matter of life and death.”

She cited a study that looked at the rates of complications and death of Black and Latina women in New York City during childbirth.

A key takeaway of the study, she said, is that “when providers have conversations with patients where they feel that they are less valued, it can be life threatening.”