News / USA

African-American Surgeon Calls for Equality in US Medical System

Report finds discrimination against blacks, women, Hispanics and obese patients

Dr. Augustus White, with a group of nuns at a Leper Colony in Vietnam in the late 1960s, as he was becoming increasingly aware of medical discrimination against minorities.
Dr. Augustus White, with a group of nuns at a Leper Colony in Vietnam in the late 1960s, as he was becoming increasingly aware of medical discrimination against minorities.

Multimedia

Audio

When Augustus White was growing up in the American south in the 1940s, racial segregation was an accepted part of life. African Americans got second best - in education, employment, and health care.

But White overcame those barriers, becoming an orthopedic surgeon, professor of medicine at Harvard  and a leading figure in the struggle to reduce discrimination against minority medical patients.

Overcoming barriers

White was the first African American to reach a series of academic and professional milestones that were unheard of in the 1950s and ‘60s. The first African-American president of his traditionally white fraternity at Brown University, White was the first African American to graduate from Stanford Medical School, the first black resident, the first black surgery professor - at Yale University - and the first black department chief at Harvard’s teaching hospitals.

But what White may be best known for is his groundbreaking exploration of the deeply-rooted bias against minority patients that he believes is prevalent in the American health care system.

Dr. Augustus White in his apartment at Carlanderska Hospital, Goteborg, Sweden, 1969.
Dr. Augustus White in his apartment at Carlanderska Hospital, Goteborg, Sweden, 1969.

Struggle for medical equality

White first became aware of discrimination against minorities at the start of his medical career in the early 1960s and, later, while serving as a combat surgeon during the Vietnam War. His personal observations were further confirmed when he read a 2002 report that revealed some disturbing statistics about discrimination, not only against blacks, but also women, Hispanics, gays, the elderly and even the obese.

"This Institute of Medicine report, "Unequal Treatment," just spells it out in just blatant, statistical, overwhelmingly convincing ideas and realities about this inhumanity that exists," he says.

It’s conscious and unconscious, says White, but it’s a prevailing situation. "When are you most vulnerable? It’s when you’re sick. And to realize that under those circumstances you’re at risk to receive disparate care is really quite an issue."

Unequal treatment

The report also cited that African Americans receive less pain medication for the same injuries than white Americans; women dying from kidney disease are less likely to receive transplants; Hispanic Americans receive less angioplasty and bypass surgery for heart disease than whites; and the elderly are treated as less valuable than younger patients.

White finds this shocking, and inexcusable. "It’s a moral issue. It’s a legal issue. It’s a public health issue. This is a question of human rights," he says. "People should be getting the best care that the profession can offer them. And now they’re not getting the best care the profession can offer them."

What was even more surprising to White was seeing just how unconscious this bias seemed to be.

"There are examples of female doctors actually giving disparate care to female patients. There are examples of African-American doctors actually giving disparate care to African-American patients. And my theory is that the culture of medicine is so powerful that when you come through it as a student and as a resident and as a young doctor, and you get inculcated into the profession, sadly, part of that momentum includes these biases."

Augustus A. White III, M.D., is professor of Medical Education and Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School and the first African American department chief at Harvard’s teaching hospitals.
Augustus A. White III, M.D., is professor of Medical Education and Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School and the first African American department chief at Harvard’s teaching hospitals.

Medical inertia

To counteract these discrepancies, White calls for changes in education for doctors, nurses, medical school faculty, even insurance companies. He says they need training in self-awareness, so they can recognize their internalized prejudices, and be able to work from that.

White believes doctors need to understand the culture their patients come from - something he calls cultural literacy.

"Medical students should be taught something about the characteristics of the cultures that they may be treating in large part. So if 30 percent of your patients are Muslim patients, you should have some insight, some idea about what some of the prevailing practices of the Muslim culture may be."

With a new book about his experiences, called "Seeing Patients - Unconscious Bias in Health Care," White hopes to make the medical community aware of the problem, and trusts it will motivate them to doing something about it.

But he admits that it’s going to be a challenge.

"There is a kind of denial, there is a kind of inertia, but I think this is a mission that deserves a lot of energy and enthusiasm to get medical schools to be more committed with resources, with determination, with sustained efforts to really change the culture of medicine."  

White remains hopeful that change will come - and that everyone will have equal access to the best medical care the nation can provide.

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid