This is a guest post by LauraAnn Schmidberger, Ph.D. Candidate, UCSF Tetrad Graduate Program
Doctors and other scientists are trained to be precise in how they word their hypotheses, methods, and findings, because they know that precision is important in the fields of medicine and science. However, this accuracy does not seem to follow them as they cross into the social sciences. The article “On Racism: A New Standard For Publishing On Racial Health Inequities” highlights some examples of the careless ways scientists discuss race in their studies.
Scientists often say that “societal factors” may contribute to the health disparities they see in Black communities, but they fail to ask what causes those social disparities—that is, racism. This is like attempting to treat a cancer patient’s pain, fatigue, weight loss, and other symptoms instead of acknowledging that they have cancer and attempting to remedy that root cause.
Similarly, we need to examine and begin to treat the root cause of health disparities. Perhaps Black communities do face more financial stress or lack easy access to healthcare, but these are symptoms of the larger issue of pervasive systemic racism. The article points out that there is an abundance of scholarship (largely by Black authors) on the topic of “how racism shapes conditions germane to racial health inequities.” It is not that scientists don’t have access to this information, but that they choose to ignore it or gloss over it for less accurate and less meaningful conclusions.
I also appreciated the distinction the article offers between different types of racism: “interpersonal, institutionalized, or internalized.” While all racism is structural, it can express itself in different ways that all need to be addressed; we can think of these like different types of cancer which require different treatments. Many cancer patients may benefit from chemotherapy, but knowing where the tumor is might allow it to be removed surgically. Knowing the origin of the racism and how it is perpetuated in a given scenario can give us better tools to eradicate it. For example, interpersonal racism may be combated with education on critical race theory, while institutional racism might require breaking down the old systems built on inequalities (i.e. abolition rather than reform).
Another example of imprecise language arises from the issue of trust. One of the “social disparities” clinicians often point to is the lack of trust that Black individuals and communities feel for the medical community. However, as the article notes, “assertions that patient mistrust drives disparities obscures the etiologies of racial health inequities and tacitly blames affected patients for their disproportionate suffering.” In other words, saying that Black patients suffer from diseases either more frequently or more severely because they don’t trust doctors to help them is a form of victim-blaming. It is not the Black community that has decided not to trust doctors; it is the medical community that has, through both assaults on and apathy towards Black individuals, actively dismantled any good relationship the two groups might have had.
Issues of mistrust have arisen not because of the one event alone (such as the Tuskegee experiments), but because of both historic and ongoing micro- and macro- aggressions against marginalized groups, and these can only be addressed by addressing their root cause: racism. Largely white medical institutions continue to prove themselves undeserving of the trust of BIPOC communities because they continue to perpetuate racism in a multitude of ways, from continuing to utilize race corrections and other concepts that reify biological theories of race, to repeatedly marginalizing and otherwise failing Black faculty and students. While trust between patient and doctor (as well as patient community and healthcare community) is an important factor to consider, “incessant racial health inequities… reveal less about what patients have failed to feel and more about what systems have failed to do.”
Medicine loves precision. A person does not just have lung cancer, they have non-small cell lung squamous-cell carcinoma, or perhaps pulmonary enteric adenocarcinoma. However, when it comes to understanding the disparities between patients of different races, the desire for exactness seems to disappear and is replaced with hesitant generalizations. This is not unique to science, but appears in many corners of society, especially as discussions of race become more common. However, scientists have the ability to give the topic the accuracy it deserves by becoming familiar with the growing wealth of scholarship on the relationship between racism and health disparities and citing it in our own research. Language matters, and taking more care in our wording as it relates to race and medicine is one simple step to combating racism in the field.