Happy New Year! We’re starting 2022 full of hope and renewed optimism. Oh, wait; not so much. We’re not only still in a pandemic, the Omicron variant is the most infectious one yet. Daily cases are setting new records. Our hospitals are full again. Our beleaguered healthcare workers – the ones who haven’t already thrown in the towel – are at their breaking points. Two years in, and we still don’t have enough tests. We’re in the greatest public health crisis in a century, yet our legislators are taking power away from public health officials, and their angry constituents are forcing many of those officials to quit. We have effective vaccines, but millions still refuse to take them.
The Simpsons – especially, Homer — has the right word for this: D’oh!
I remember the first time I told a doctor that I was being trafficked. That experience was also the last time I told a healthcare professional. My psychiatrist in an acute inpatient psychiatric hospital heard my story and told me that trafficking only happens in third-world countries and in movies. While this professional was the most ill-informed I ever encountered, they were not the only healthcare workers that did not have the training they needed to identify me.
I remember tucking my hospital gown between my legs to hide the bruising on my thighs. I remember explaining away cuts and burns. I remember being encouraged by doctors and nurses to report sexual assaults. I remember a psychiatrist telling me I would never get better, so I should stop seeking help. I remember the look in a nurse’s eyes when she knew something was off but did not know how to intervene.
It was that nurse, the one whose instinct told her that something was wrong, that gave me hope. She saw me. When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you never forget the first person to really see you. She gave me hope that someone could help me, that someone saw me as a person. She gave me hope that someday my life would be different.
For 20 years I was trafficked for sex by a member of my family, and for 20 years I was discharged into the hands of my trafficker, a seemingly good man who was charismatic and kind to everyone in the office. All the while, I remembered the nurse who saw me, and I held onto hope that there were others like her.
I have heard story after story that mirrors my own: men, women, and children being trafficked, desperately hoping a healthcare worker would spot the signs but being placed back into the hands of their traffickers. The statistics back our experiences.
Mothers deserve more than a day of recognition this year—they deserve the whole month, and more. The pandemic has been particularly hard on women, especially poor women and women of color.
To demonstrate the appreciation mothers deserve this Mother’s Day, we should get them something they really need: health care. To improve maternal health, we should look to the Medicaid program, long a pathway to accessible, quality health care for low-income Americans. Medicaid is especially important for mothers; it covers close to half of all births in the U.S.
Now, states have the opportunity to do even more for moms.
The American Rescue Plan signed into law in March gives every state the option to extend Medicaid maternity coverage for up to 12 months postpartum, a significant increase from the current limit of just 60 days. Illinois has already announced it will extend postpartum coverage; other states should follow. Extending the guaranteed coverage period will increase access to postnatal care during this ‘fourth trimester’ to ensure that women can access treatment for common conditions like postpartum depression as well as preventing organ prolapse or hemorrhage. Not only mothers will benefit. Parental insurance is associated with better health for children, including a lower risk of adverse childhood experiences.
In addition, the American Rescue Plan offers an opening to expand Medicaid with even more federal funding than is currently available through the Affordable Care Act. The 12 states, mostly in the South, that have not expanded their Medicaid programs are leaving hundreds of thousands of women without the support they deserve.
Expanding Medicaid programs will provide robust access to health care to more women and reduce maternal morbidity and mortality, which has reached crisis proportions among many women of color. Black and Indigenous women are more likely than other women to die during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. According to the CDC, the maternal mortality rate is 2.5 times higher for Black women than white women. Disparate access and uneven quality of care, higher rates of chronic illness, and racism all play a part in that grim statistic.
The disproportionate burden of maternal mortality and adverse outcomes from childbirth has long-lasting effects on mothers and their children. Black newborns have an increased risk for long-term complications resulting from pre-birth complications. They may also face generational poverty and trauma in the long run if they are born to a mother who dies during childbirth.
I was wondering what might crowd COVID-19 off the news. The historic economic devastation caused by it has been subsumed into it, just another casualty of the pandemic. In better times, perhaps SpaceX’s efforts would inspire us. But, no, it took the police killing of yet another person of color to take our attention away.
Now, let me say right off that I am not the best person to discuss George Floyd’s death and the woeful pattern it is part of. I have certainly been the beneficiary of white male privilege. I’ve never been unjustly pulled over or arrested. I haven’t taken part in the protests. But people like me need to speak out. Writing about anything else right now seems almost irresponsible.
OK: you’ve seen the video. You’ve heard Mr. Floyd protest that he can’t breathe, that the officer was killing him. You’ve seen other officers stand by and not do anything — some even assisting — even as bystanders pleaded for them to let Mr. Floyd breathe. It’s disturbing, it’s distressing, and it’s nothing new.
I saw a video from one of the resulting protests where another officer restrained a protester — a black man, of course — in exactly the same way, although in this case another officer eventually moved the officer’s knee off the protester’s neck. He’d learned what that video looked like.
There now have been protests in over 140 U.S. cities, with the National Guard mobilized in almost half the states. Most protests have been peaceful, but there has been looting and there have been shootings. It’s a level of civil unrest not seen since the 1960’s.
And we thought it was bad when we just wanted the grocery stores to have toilet paper again, when wearing a mask was considered a hardship.
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.