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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily 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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs