INDIANAPOLIS — About two months ago, Dr. Susan Moore, an Indianapolis-area physician battling COVID-19, documented her harrowing experience at Indiana University Health (IU Health) North, a hospital in the affluent suburb of Carmel, Ind., and what she described as poor and hostile treatment she received because she was a Black woman.
“I put forth and I maintain, if I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that,” Moore said in a viral Facebook video she took from her hospital bed on Dec. 4, after talking about how her complaints of pain were met with indifference and suspicion.
Moore, 52, died weeks later of complications from the virus. Her death highlighted an issue that’s persisted in doctors’ offices and hospitals and among medical professionals since as early as the era of slavery, and continues amid a global pandemic.
“There’s a very horrific history of racism in medicine, specifically in this country,” Dr. Uché Blackstock, a Yahoo News medical contributor and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, told Yahoo News on Friday. “And I think what we see today is that like every other social institution in this country, we have not reconciled with this racist past.”
In her video, Moore said she was made to feel like a “drug addict” when she complained of pain in ner neck and sought treatment for it. She wrote in her Facebook post that she pleaded to get remdesivir, an antiviral medication used to treat the coronavirus, and eventually received two doses.
But even after getting the drug, the post said, she was told by her doctor that she didn’t exhibit the symptoms necessary for the medication and was told to go home.
“All I can do is cry, I was in so much pain,” she wrote. “He said you can just go home right now. Of note he did not even listen to my lungs, he didn’t touch me in any way. He performed no physical exam. I told him you cannot tell me how I feel.”
Moore’s video and her subsequent death on Dec. 20 garnered national attention, displaying what many advocates deemed a tragic and powerful example of bias and discrimination against Black patients in the health care system, stemming in part from racist myths about Black pain.
A 2016 study from the University of Virginia found that Black Americans are “systematically undertreated” for pain compared with white Americans and also found that half of a sample of white medical students and residents harbored false beliefs about Black Americans’ pain tolerance, such as the false notion that Black people have thicker skin than white people. The study found that the participants who held those beliefs made treatment recommendations that were less accurate than those who didn’t.
“It’s well documented that Black patients’ pain is undertreated,” Blackstock said. “And I think that this is of course what happens in a society that devalues Black lives and Black bodies.”
In Moore’s case, the fact that she was a physician herself amplified the inescapable effects of racism in the medical community, Blackstock said.
“I think for Dr. Susan Moore, the reason why her case was elevated the way that it was is because she’s a physician, [and] it shows that our education cannot even protect us from racism. And the video of her words, of her experience, were just so incredibly powerful. You got a firsthand account of what it’s like to experience racism in a health care setting.”
In response to the outcry over Moore’s treatment, IU Health CEO Dennis M. Murphy issued a statement saying he was “saddened” by Moore’s video and that he would seek an external review of her treatment. But he also said that based on a preliminary medical quality review, he did not believe the hospital failed the “technical aspects” of Moore’s care and seemed to suggest that the nursing team was “intimidated” by Moore’s knowledge and her use of social media to express her frustrations with the care she was receiving.
“That response was inadequate. It was insulting,” Blackstock said. “It tells us that there is no introspection. There’s no thought about how racism is embedded in all aspects of care delivery.”
On Tuesday, IU Health acknowledged in a statement to Yahoo News that there is a “real and problematic history of systemic and structural racism within healthcare and society.”
“Immediately upon learning of Dr. Moore’s experience, we began an internal investigation into our clinical decision making and patient communication,” the statement said. “We have also formalized an independent, external investigation of Dr. Moore’s case and our overall patient care protocols, communication and procedures.”
The external review is ongoing, the health care system said.
“This needs to be a top-down approach,” Blackstock said. “Looking at everything within the system using a lens of racial equity. Down from how the CEO functions, how they choose people for the board of the hospital, how they recruit faculty — then also looking at patient outcomes, disaggregated by race, and really prioritizing racial equity and antiracism work.”
Beyond Moore’s case and the treatment of Black pain, racial disparities in the health care system continue to affect maternal deaths — Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women — and add to the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.
In an op-ed published Feb. 1 in the Washington Post, Blackstock and her sister, Dr. Oni Blackstock, said early data shows that white Americans are being vaccinated at higher rates than Black Americans, despite the fact that Black Americans are dying at higher rates. Researchers have attributed the vaccine disparity to Black Americans’ skepticism toward medical institutions.
“I want to change the narrative around vaccine hesitancy and mistrust to looking at institutional trustworthiness,” Uché Blackstock told Yahoo News. “Because given the history of the medical establishment, in terms of abusing and exploiting Black patients, that has led to or contributed to what we’re seeing today in terms of people’s concerns about the vaccine. And so any work that’s done right now in this urgent moment has to be about gaining trust.”
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