Health care priorities must avoid racial bias

Kasandra Scholz, Contributing Writer

This is an opinion article and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

Around the world, millions of people suffer from sickle cell disease, a genetic illness that distorts red blood cells and causes shortness of breath, pain, fatigue, delayed growth and development in children and other serious complications. Last year, researchers at the University of Ibadan, University of Illinios, Chicago and University of Loyola, Chicago came together and found a permanent, readily accessible cure involving a bone marrow transplant, instead of the previous chemotherapy that was often ineffective and challenging. While this cure represents a major medical advance, one which will help thousands of people, it also dredges up questions about why it took so long to develop. As a disease that primarily impacts people of color, the time it took to find a permanent cure exposes problematic racist practices in the medical community.

Intensive chemotherapy was impossible for many sufferers, who were too weak to survive such harsh treatment. This new cure for sickle cell anemia is an impressive breakthrough, but one that should have come much earlier. Bone marrow transplants are not new procedures; they have been performed since the late 1950s.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are over 100,000 sickle cell anemia sufferers in the U.S. Of these, the majority are African American or Hispanic. This is likely the reason that the cure was so long in coming. Predominately white genetic diseases (such as cystic fibrosis) receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for research. Meanwhile, diseases that impact historically marginalized groups have far fewer funds to work with. In 2011, for example, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation spent $176 million, in comparison with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America’s measly $1.1 million. In a world where minorities must contend with a slew of injustices daily, the medical field should not be a contributor.

Racial bias in medicine is also visible in patient care. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that physicians tended to see black patients as less cooperative, and were less likely to prescribe thrombolysis treatment in African American individuals with blood clots than they were to prescribe it to their white contemporaries. The researchers concluded that many physicians exhibit unconscious racial bias. This study, paired with firsthand horror stories from hundreds of mistreated African Americans, paints a concerning picture of the state of American medicine.

In a primarily black city like New Orleans, we must consider the implications of racist medical practices. We need to be a hub for innovating and finding new cures to poorly-treated diseases that impact our community. Curing any disease is an unquestionably favorable advance that has the potential to save lives. Using bone marrow transplants to cure sickle cell anemia already has, and will continue to heal thousands of sufferers in the U.S. and around the world. The issue, however, lies in the amount of time it took to find such a relatively simple solution. Modern medicine needs to focus more on actively avoiding racial bias, and providing people of all races and ethnicities with the highest level of care attainable.

Kasandra is a freshman at Newcomb-Tulane College. She can be reached at [email protected]

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