In the 1970s, Jean Whitehorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, went to a hospital in New Mexico for acute appendicitis. Years later, she found out the procedure performed was not just an appendectomy – she had been sterilized via tubal ligation. Around the same time, a Northern Cheyenne woman was told by a doctor that a hysterectomy would cure her headaches. After the procedure, her headaches persisted. Later, she found out a brain tumor was causing her pain, not a uterine problem. Like Whitehorse and the Northern Cheyenne woman, thousands of Native American women have suffered irreversible changes to their bodies and psychological trauma that continues to this day. Most medical providers are unaware of our own profession’s role in implementing these racists policies that have direct links to the Eugenics movement.
Eugenics was a “movement that is aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race” through breeding. From its origin in 1883, eugenics became the driving rationale behind using sterilization as a tool to breed out unwanted members of society in the United States. With the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell permitting eugenic sterilization, 32 states followed suit and passed eugenic-sterilization laws. Although the outward use of sterilization declined after World War II because of its association with Nazi practices, sterilization rates in poor communities of color remained high throughout the United States.
Call it what you want, white privilege and health disparity appear to be two sides of the same coin. We used to consider ethnic or genetic variants as risk factors, prognostic to health conditions. However, the social determinants of health (SDOH) have increasingly become more relevant as causes of disease prevalence and complexity in health care.
As a pediatric hospitalist in the San Joaquin Valley region, I encounter these social determinants daily. They were particularly evident as I treated a 12-year old Hispanic boy who was admitted with a ruptured appendix and developed a complicated abscess, requiring an extensive hospitalization due to his complication. Why? Did he have the genetic propensity for this adverse outcome? Was it because he was non-compliant with his antibiotic regimen? No.
Rather, circumstances due to his social context presented major hurdles to his care. He had trouble getting to a hospital or clinic. He did not want to burden his parents—migrant workers with erratic long hours—further delaying his evaluation. And his Spanish-speaking mother never wondered why, despite surgery and drainage, he was not healing per the usual expectation.
When he was first hospitalized, his mother bounced around in silent desperation from their rural clinic to the emergency room more than 20 miles from their home and back to the clinic, only to be referred again to that same emergency room. By the time he was admitted 2 days later, he was profoundly ill. The surgeon had to be called in the middle of the night for an emergency open surgical appendectomy and drainage. Even after post-operative care, while he was on broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics, his fevers, chills and pain persisted. To avoid worrying his mother, he continued to deny his symptoms. Five days after his operation, he required another procedure for complex abscess drainage.
Fifteen years ago, as a medical student, I learned a
terrifying lesson about blindly using race-based medicine. I was taking care of
Mr. Smith, a thin man in his late 60s, who entered the hospital with severe
back pain and a fever. As the student on the hospital team, I spent over an
hour interviewing him, asking relevant questions about his medical and social history,
the medications he took, and the details of his symptoms. I learned Mr. Smith
was a veteran who ran into tough times that left him chronically homeless,
uninsured, and suffering from hypertension and diabetes. I performed a complete
physical exam, paying particularly close attention to his back. Upon reviewing
his blood tests and kidney function, I read the computer’s report: “normal.”
I felt confident as I presented Mr. Smith’s treatment plan
to my attending physician: I recommended a CT scan, ibuprofen for pain, blood
pressure lowering medication, and an antibiotic. My attending listened quietly,
reviewed the labs herself, and then firmly corrected every aspect of my
treatment proposal. “His kidney function is NOT
normal. What you want to do for him can further damage his kidneys. The lab
reported his creatinine as ‘normal’ because it has an algorithm that makes
faulty assumptions based on race.” Mr. Smith, according to the medical record,
was African American.
I almost harmed Mr. Smith because I hadn’t realized that the exact same creatinine level (the key metric for kidney function) yields two different reports based on whether you’re African American or not. The logic goes that because black people supposedly have higher muscle mass on average, healthy creatinine levels for those who check the “black” box is different from those who check other boxes. Physicians around the country continue to rely on this metric even when the black patient is thin, like Mr. Smith. This example of race-based creatinine levels to determine kidney function is a symptom of race-based medicine in general: (poorly defined) racial categories are often used as proxies to explain discrepancies in health outcomes by race, which is a potentially dangerous analysis. Mr. Smith’s case forced me to consider why race-based medicine is problematic and where our attention as healthcare providers should be directed instead.
What is certain is that health inequities persist along racial lines. African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than other groups (Figure 1). American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 2.1 times as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as white individuals and the prevalence of obesity in this population is higher than any other group. While it would be convenient to attribute these disparities to genetic difference, this is simply not the case.
According the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index, the U.S. ranks 35th out of 169 countries. Even though we are the 11th wealthiest country in the world, we are behind pretty much all developed economies in terms of health. In the Americas, not just Canada (16th) but also Cuba (30th), Chile and Costa Rica (tied for 33rd) rank ahead of us in this Bloomberg study.
To answer this layered question, we need to look at the top ranked countries in the Bloomberg Index: From first to 12th, they are Spain; Italy; Iceland; Japan; Switzerland; Sweden; Australia; Singapore; Norway; Israel; Luxembourg; and France. What are they doing right that the U.S. isn’t? In a nutshell, they embrace half a dozen critical economic and societal traits that are absent in the U.S.:
· Universal health care
· Better diet: fresh ingredients and less packaged and processed food
When it comes to access to health care, the 34 countries that are ahead of the U.S. in the Bloomberg health rankings all offer universal health care to their people. This means that preventive, primary and acute care is available to 100% of the population. In contrast, 25 – 30 million Americans do not have health care insurance, and an equal number are under insured. For 15 – 18% of our population, financial concerns about how to pay for a visit to the doctor, how to meet high insurance deductibles, or cash payments after insurance take precedence over taking care of their health. Lack of preventive care leads to visits to the emergency rooms for ailments that could have been prevented through regular primary care follow-up, at a very high cost to our health system. Note: We spent $10,700 per capita in health care in 2017, more than three as much as Spain ($3,200) and Italy ($3,400). Many Americans postpone important medical operations for years, until they reach 65 years of age, when they finally qualify for universal health care or Medicare. Lack of prevention and primary care, health interventions postponed, and the constant worry that medical costs might bankrupt one’s family: none of this is conducive to healthy lives.
Most will be surprised to learn that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent the only populations in the United States with a legal birthright to health care. Even though Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services,” U.S. federal policy only guarantees this human right to enrolled tribal members. The source of this juridical entitlement is what the United States Supreme Court has defined as the federal trust responsibility.
Between 1787 and 1871, the United States signed nearly 400 treaties with Indian tribes, in which, for the exchange of millions of acres of tribal land, the U.S. government promised in perpetuity to respect their sovereignty and provide benefits, including housing, education, and healthcare. Argued in March 1983, United States v. Mitchell is the most recent Supreme Court case establishing this principle as a matter of law. This week marks the 36-year-anniversary of that seminal case, providing us the opportunity to discuss the federal government’s failure to adequately fund the healthcare institutions that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives despite its legal responsibility to do so.
The current life expectancy for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 73 years, 5.5 years less than that of the general population. American Indians die at higher rates from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and kidney disease. When we consider why Native communities suffer from preventable and treatable diseases at disproportionate frequencies, we must first evaluate the inequity in Congressional funding for Indian Health Services (IHS), the national agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for providing comprehensive healthcare to the country’s enrolled American Indians and Alaska Natives.
A close look at disease and suffering would lead most of us to the same conclusion: our natural environment is inextricably linked to our health. When the Army Corps of Engineers approved the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in July 2016, thousands of water protectors from across the world gathered in protest. Through staunch, organized resistance, indigenous activists and their non-indigenous allies refuted the proposed pipeline, which now shuttles over 500,000 barrels of oil per day through the Standing Rock Sioux’s sole water supply and most coveted burial grounds.
In December 2016, I joined the thousands at Standing Rock to briefly bear witness to their commitment to protecting the health and well-being of future generations. Eager to assist, I provided medical care to these heroes, many of whom had given up their jobs, quit school, or come out of retirement in solidarity with the water protectors. Their determination and strength became even more inspirational when a blizzard brought -40° F in its wake, trapping everyone inside the camp for several days.
Photo Courtesy of Phuoc Le, MD
After battling corporate juggernauts, state governments, and fossil fuel lobbyists for months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies neared victory when the Obama administration denied a permit required for the pipeline’s completion. Just a couple of months later, however, President Trump authorized its advancement and on February 23rd, 2017, the U.S. National Guard evicted the final Standing Rock protestors from the Oceti Sakowin camp. Last week marks the two-year anniversary of that eviction.
We tested whether new payment mechanisms could be harnessed in health care delivery reform to reduce health and health care disparities. Here’s what we found.
First, there were facts that couldn’t be ignored:
#1: Children in rural Oregon on Medicaid suffered more health-related dental challenges compared to children with private insurance, including the pain, systemic health problems and disruptions to education that come with them. Advantage Dental, the state’s largest provider of Medicaid services, was determined to do something about it.
#2: New mothers on Medicaid in a New York City hospital were less likely to have a postpartum care visit compared to privately insured women. As a result, they missed assessments and screenings for a number of health conditions, some of which can lead to chronic health problems throughout their lives. For many women, the postpartum visit is one of the few chances to engage them in ongoing health care. The providers and care teams at the Icahn School of Medicine and the Mount Sinai Health System wanted to find out what it takes to increase postpartum visit rates.
#3: In Fairfax County, Virginia, multi-racial and multi-ethnic populations being served in three County-funded safety-net clinics were less likely to receive the typical high-quality care provided for hypertension, diabetes, and cervical cancer screening when compared to their Hispanic counterparts. The providers and teams at the Community Health Care Network stepped forward to address the issue. Continue reading…