Three Things You Can Do Today to Address Unconscious Bias in Medicine

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

Don’t present as ignorant to Blacks.

Many Blacks are aware of the contributions made to the field of medicine by Black medical professionals, scholars, and thousands of Black bodies. You have to do your research; read about the struggle as well as the achievements of Blacks in health care. As a start google, Duke University Medical Center Libraries and Archives and explore the Chronology of Achievements of African Americans in Medicine.

Know that the involvement of Blacks in healthcare date back to the early history of America. In 1721 Onesimus , an enslaved African, describe to Cotton Mather the African method of inoculation against smallpox. The technique, later used to protect American Revolutionary War soldiers, is perfected in the 1790's by British doctor, Edward Jenner using a less virulent organism.

Portrait of Onesimus Nesib

You can also keep up with new efforts and accomplishments of Blacks in medicine. In 2020 Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, was one of the National Institutes of Health's leading scientists working directly to develop and produce the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. A native of North Carolina, Corbett's work helps to highlight the significance of supporting black students in entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

Yale Professor Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a leader in the field of health equity, was chosen to be a co-chair for the Coronavirus Task Force Advisory Board during the administrative transition for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. The charge of this task force was to craft a plan to curb the spread of Covid-19 including the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color. Nunez-Smith previously advised on the pandemic strategy for Connecticut, serving on the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Board under Governor Ned Lamont.

Finally, recognize the sacrifices Black women have had to endure in order to make the entire world a better place. Learn the name Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant) died of ovarian cancer on October 4, 1951. A Johns Hopkins doctor took a sample of cervical cancer cells from Lacks, then a 31-year-old mother from Turners Station, Baltimore, MD, without her knowledge or consent 70 years ago. She died shortly thereafter in 1951. The cells were the first to live outside a body in a laboratory, where they reproduced instead of dying, leading to a host of medical advances in everything from vaccines and cosmetics to in vitro fertilization.

That “HeLa” cell line was a scientific breakthrough: the first immortal line of human cells to divide indefinitely, under laboratory conditions, to power research. The cells were mass produced, for profit, without recognition to her family.

Scientists today buy HeLa cells and cells with modifications for thousands of dollars per vial.

Here's a bit extra credit for you: Search for information on Who are the “Mothers of Gynecology?” and who is considered the “Father of Gynecology? How did he get that title?

Don’t present as if everyone is the same.

The color blind approach is a failed approach. People want their culture and ethnicity to be recognized and respected.  Our histories and experiences are so different at times that some Black women report that they don’t expect even their white friends to understand the fear that they carry daily related to getting sick and landing in the hands of an all-white medical team.


Position yourself to “see something” and “say something.”

Put some skin in the game. Learn how you and others can train to become volunteer patient advocates and attend appointments with women who need support, and a better understanding of what doctors are saying to them. But, more than anything; hold their hand and comfort them. We learned during COVID-19 that many Blacks have historical fear and distrust of doctors and the medical system. Help them interpret and identify options, second opinions and support their decisions.

An advocate can be a family member, friend, caregiver, or professional health advisor. The qualities a good advocate needs include:

  • Being assertive and comfortable talking with doctors and healthcare providers and getting them to answer questions in plain English
  • Have the time to be at the hospital with the patient, which might be difficult for someone with a demanding job or family responsibilities
  • Be organized enough to help handle the paperwork associated with patients’ hospitalization and be willing to take notes and gather information from the healthcare team about their diagnosis and treatment
  • Be someone they’re comfortable sharing the details of their health with and who is aware of who they want to share that information with and who they don’t.

It may not be easy at first, but you can start with what works and build on it.

Questions? Stories? Need a mental health expert to discuss Black health issues and medical racism for your media story? Get in touch.

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