Do Black Communities Really Distrust Healthcare Systems?

It was while attending the 2018 HIV Research Endgame Conference in Toronto that I heard the statement made publicly for the first time in a professional setting. It startled me for a moment, but only took a couple seconds of pondering for me to become glad it was said. It has been a historic truth for quite some time and a truth that existed within my personal circles, too; but it did leave me wondering if it’s still true among the majority of Black people living in North America today? Growing up, I had my sights set on becoming a doctor for a good chunk of my youth, and I looked up to them like gods. I desperately wanted to experience the ‘thrill’ of working in a hospital setting — I wanted to see the action — but when I began my job as a clinical researcher, the excitement quickly faded. The doctors I am blessed to work under are brilliant, no shadow of a doubt, but they’re honestly just regular-degular people like you and me. Moreover, it was through observing how different patients with different backgrounds interacted with their doctors that I began to feel that this historic truth is still very much alive today. 

It’s not possible to speak on the valid distrust in our healthcare systems without exploring this continent’s history with eugenics. Eugenics is referred to as beliefs and practices based around ‘improving’ the human race according to genetics, and people of colour have been at the receiving end of sterilization and forced abortions without consent for longer than any of us can remember. During the rise of modern medicine, Black women were surgically experimented on after slavery to make further advancements in fields like gynaecology, but for the benefit of White women. In one of my favourite Toni Morrison books, Home, a young, enthusiastic Black lady in her early 20s begins working as a surgeon’s assistant during segregation in the 1950s, which is worth keeping in mind that this was only about sixty some-odd years ago. Unbeknownst to her, the same doctor she deeply admired conducted experiments on her through the water she drank, the food she was fed and eventually right on his operating table, and he nearly killed her. This was the jarring reality of Africans and Caribbeans living in North America during our parents’ lifetime.

These types of crimes are not always so blatant either, and have existed in recent times with subtle approaches, leading to minimal public attention. In fact, Birth control was initially created to decrease the birth rates of poor people (and let’s be real, by poor they mean coloured) in the Great Britain. Furthermore, it is currently documented that dozens of Indigenous women have undergone un-consensual forced sterilization in prisons as recently as 2017 in Canada. People of colour have been going through eugenic practices at the hands of government bodies and licensed doctors — legally, if I might add — not very long ago, and these institutions continue to pretend like it never happened and fail to recognize the lasting effects it has on our communities. These very same government bodies and institutions were not created for us, they were actually designed specifically against us. So, it really isn’t exclusive to healthcare systems that most Black and Brown folks are suspicious of, but the institutions in our society as a whole, as they all are systematically working in support of and in conjunction with one another.

What healthcare industries forgot to do before beginning to include us into these systems is the work required to repair the damage they have caused and actively attempt to build our trust in them. I consciously selected the word ‘build’ as opposed to ‘rebuild’, as the trust was never really there to begin with. Now, I know that it can be challenging at times to get patients of African and Caribbean decent to be compliant with their medication regimens, but I also know that some of these same patients don’t fully believe that the meds they are prescribed are actually doing what they say they are; some believe it is just a money game between physicians and pharmaceutical corporations (which it most certainly is). At the very same conference I mentioned earlier, I listened as presenting physicians brainstormed amongst themselves about how they can engage with Black communities more in order to help them understand how to take better care of their health. Here lies one of the primary problems with these hierarchal systems, whereby people in certain positions of power are treated like gods — they start to believe it themselves. Most doctor’s do not feel that they have anything to learn from us; that it’s us who need to take our health more seriously. Many of them believe that we choose to make things difficult and should just follow instructions better. This mindset is so dangerous, because that is exactly how all historic and current eugenic beliefs and practices came to be in the first place. When their frame of mind is set this way, they will always view a problem from the point of them having everything that we need, and all that they know is absolutely be true, and the solution is only a matter of us letting them help better ourselves.

Time has proven this not to be true on multiple occasions, because science is ultimately catching up to nature, not the other way around. And that is an area our ancestors were experts in, the patterns and laws of nature. Researchers are now referring to a valuable new skill called ‘emotional intelligence’ and are seeking it in prospective employees. They even started offering classes and workshops to all hospital staff on what it means to be emotionally intelligent — but it really just means compassion, doesn’t it? Something Indigenous communities, Buddhists, and Taoists have been preaching about it for centuries. A few weeks ago, a research study proclaiming that the act deep breathing can reduce stress and anxiety, ultimately lower risks of cardiovascular disease. This was considered to be a recent discovery in the world of science; but it's already known as ‘pranayama’ in Sanskrit; it’s the foundation of yoga, and has been practiced across the globe for millenniums. Our ancestors created holistic medicine with herbs and plants way before any scientific theory was proven and they had secret remedies for almost all diseases or ailments. Though many records of these traditions unfortunately cease to exist, as they were destroyed by colonizers, they are magically still alive and present today in the homes of our families, passed down from generation to generation.

The sad fact is that Black men and women in North America do have shorter life expectancies than Whites, and we face more diseases as adults and seniors. Because we are more prone to diabetes, HIV, high blood pressure, cervical cancer, etc., there will be times when we will well need to receive formal treatment from these very same healthcare systems, but it isn’t a bad thing. It’s just about finding a balance that works for you. Do your research, and don’t let intimidation lead you to just accept what you are given or told. Ask questions — dozens of questions — and if there’s anything you don’t understand, do not leave until they have fully explained to you what it means. Get third and fourth opinions. Request a referral to a specialist. Be persistent. And if there are people in your life that are open, talk with them about your doctor’s visits. Include your family or friends in what’s going on with your health. You never should suffer in silence, and there is no shame in being sick or getting help. Chances are, any problem that you are facing is also a problem that many others are facing. I know the fact isn’t that we just don’t care about our health, as some doctor’s may presume — that is ridiculous. It is that we don’t fully believe the people in these systems will do everything in their power to help us. Even still, we should push for the best that we can get — it is our birth right to receive the quality of care we expect. Additionally, the holistic treatments and traditional medicine your family has practiced and may still continue to practice, should be held with the utmost value. We should write them all down, and treasure them. When we write down a thing and share it with others, we make that thing live forever and we will literally rewrite our own history.

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