From Mistrust to Empowerment: Transforming Healthcare for Black Americans

By: Dr. Ja’Lia Taylor, John R. Lewis Social Justice Fellow, National Racial Equity Initiative for Social Justice

As the 2024 election approaches, access to healthcare remains a critical issue, particularly for Black Americans. While the average life expectancy for Americans is 76 years, the life expectancy for Black Americans lags behind by six years. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, and mental illness continue to disproportionately affect Black Americans. Black Americans face a 30% higher risk of death from heart disease compared to their White counterparts. Black Americans also experience the highest cancer mortality rate of any demographic, with Black women facing a 40% higher death rate from breast cancer compared to White Americans. In addition, Black Americans face mental health challenges at a rate 20% higher than White Americans. Research indicates that these disparities are closely linked to systemic issues, including racism, unequal access to healthcare, poverty, and limited representation in clinical trials.

Black Americans have been underrepresented in clinical trials, leading to a lack of data on the effects of treatments and medications on this population. In addition, the U.S. healthcare system has a history of mistreating and neglecting Black Americans, eroding trust, and perpetuating disparities. From the well-known Tuskegee Syphilis Study that U.S. Public Health Service doctors conducted on Black men to the forced sterilization of Black women, often without their knowledge or consent during routine surgeries, health practitioners have committed egregious ethical violations and exploited Black Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1950, doctors notoriously took samples of Henrietta Lack’s tissue without her knowledge or consent to study cancerous cell behavior. In the 1990s, doctors at Johns Hopkins University conducted a study on lead abatement techniques by exposing Black children to lead in Baltimore, MD. These actions highlight several factors that contribute to the Black community’s reluctance to engage in clinical trials.

However, there is reason to believe that the healthcare system will continue to improve for Black Americans. Recognizing the urgent need to address health disparities head on, the American College of Physicians has recommended strengthening health literacy in Black communities. Calls to increase the presence of Black healthcare professionals can also pave the way for renewed trust and quality care for Black Americans. When Black doctors treat Black patients, those patients’ health outcomes improve. Black men who visit Black doctors are more likely to follow preventive health guidelines than when they see White doctors. Patients with Black doctors are also 47% more likely to get flu shots and 72% more likely to take part in cholesterol screenings than patients with White doctors.

We cannot improve healthcare for Black Americans without addressing cultural competence, the idea that healthcare providers understand, respect, and effectively respond to the cultural and linguistic needs of patients. Healthcare practitioners must recognize and acknowledge the cultural backgrounds, beliefs, values, and practices of diverse patient populations and integrate this understanding into the delivery of healthcare services. Cultural competence fosters goodwill between healthcare providers and the Black community, addressing deep-rooted historical and systemic mistrust. With artificial intelligence advancing rapidly, new technologies must also recognize and address Black people’s diverse backgrounds, mitigating biases and ensuring fair representation.

Addressing health inequities requires more than just dialogue; it requires tangible action.

On May 22, 2024, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation will convene its annual Policy for the People Health Equity Summit to engage audiences in critical conversations about the health disparities that Black Americans face. The summit will delve into topics like diversity in clinical trials, cultural competence, access to affordable healthcare, and the potential and pitfalls of emerging health technologies. The summit will also include an exciting health fair to jumpstart wellness practices. Being Black should not lead to adverse health outcomes. The Policy for the People Health Equity Summit will honor the ways Black communities care for their own physical and mental health in the face of racism and empower attendees to take control of their own health outcomes.