In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed dozens of natural disasters affecting our most vulnerable patients, from post-hurricane victims in Haiti to drought and famine refugees in Malawi. The vast majority of these patients suffered from acute on chronic disasters, culminating in life-threatening medical illnesses. Yet, during the course of providing clinical care and comfort, we rarely, if ever, pointed to climate change as the root cause of their conditions. The evidence for climate change is not new, but the movement for climate justice is now emerging on a large scale, and clinicians should play an active role.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an “equal opportunity”
disaster. Yes, climate change poses an existential threat to us all, but not on
equal terms. When nature strikes, it has always been the poor and historically
underserved who are most vulnerable to its wrath. Hurricane Katrina provides an
example of how natural disasters target their victims along racial and
socioeconomic lines even in the wealthiest nations. Writes TalkPoverty.org, “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as
likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck;
because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken
by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy
a home.” Throughout the world, historically marginalized communities have been
pushed to overcrowded, poorly-built, and unsanitary neighborhoods where natural
disasters invoke much greater harm.
“Kijan ou ye? How are you?” I asked my patient, a fifty-five year-old Haitian-American woman living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was 2008. I had been her primary care doctor for two years and was working with her to reduce her blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “Papi mal dok– I’m doing ok doc.” We talked for 15 minutes, reviewed her vital signs and medications, and made a plan. I then electronically transmitted a new prescription to her pharmacy. The encounter was like thousands of others I’d had as a physician, except for one key difference– I was in Rwanda, 7,000 miles away from Dorchester and 6 hours ahead of the East Coast time zone.
At the time, I knew that telemedicine – the practice of providing healthcare without the provider being physically present with the patient – was a resourceful means of working with rural populations that have limited access to healthcare. However, I had no idea that just ten years down the road, many health professionals and policymakers would laud the emerging tech field as the answer to inaccessible healthcare for rural communities. While I’m aware of telemedicine’s promising benefits, I’m certain that it cannot, on its own, solve the most pressing issues that continue to afflict the rural poor and underserved.
Ever since the invention of the telephone, providers have been practicing telemedicine. However, not until the advent of advanced technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, and remote-controlled robotic surgery, has the field of telemedicine started to beg the question: “Do we still need in-person interactions between patient and doctor to provide high quality healthcare?” This question is particularly important for patients who live in rural areas, where a chronic shortage of providers has existed for decades.
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.
A friend of mine told me the other day, “We’ve seen our insured patient population go from 15% to 70% in the few years since Obamacare.” As a primary care physician in the Midwest, he’s worked for years in an inner-city clinic that serves a poor community, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the clinic constantly struggled to stay afloat financially. Too often patients would be sent to an emergency room because the clinic couldn’t afford to provide some of the simplest medical tests, like an x-ray. Now, with most of his patients insured through the Medicaid expansion program, the clinic has beefed up its staffing and ancillary services, allowing them to provide better preventive care, and in turn, reduce costly ER visits.
From the time Medicaid was established in 1965 as the country’s first federally-funded health insurance plan for low-income individuals, state governments have only been required to cover the poorest of their citizens. Before the ACA, some 47 million Americans were uninsured because their incomes exceeded state-determined benchmarks for Medicaid eligibility and they earned far too little to buy insurance through the private marketplace.
The ACA reduced the number of uninsured Americans by mandating that states increase their income requirement for Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty line (about $1,330 per month for a single individual), and promising that the federal government would cover the cost to do so. However, in a 2012 decision, the Supreme Court left it to the states to decide if they wanted to increase their Medicaid eligibility. If they agreed to adopt Medicaid expansion, the federal government offered to cover 100% of the increased cost in 2014 and 90% by 2021.
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.