Promoting Health Equity by Choice

This guest blog post was written by Dr. Mary Travis Bassett, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Bassett spoke at TEDMED 2015.

mary-bassettNew York City is one of the most diverse but racially segregated cities in the United States. Neighborhood segregation and structural racism, including poor housing conditions and limited educational opportunities, have led to unacceptable health disparities in our city. In turn, these health disparities have led to many lives – mainly the lives of poor New Yorkers and people of color – being cut short.

On average, New York City residents are expected to live longer than the average person in the United States. However, within the five boroughs, health outcomes can vary substantially from one subway stop to another. Average life expectancy rates can obscure those worrying variations between neighborhoods. In places like the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn, where I first lived when I was a little girl, people can expect to live lives about 8-10 years shorter than a person living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Murray Hill.

The usual explanation for these unhappy odds is that people in these neighborhoods are making a whole series of bad lifestyle choices. They eat too much, don’t exercise, smoke, drink, and so on. I’d like to challenge everyone to think differently.

Instead of thinking that people in Brownsville live shorter lives because they are choosing to eat unhealthy foods and choosing not to exercise enough, let’s think of how a lack of choice can impact a person’s health. For example, people don’t choose to live in a neighborhood where it’s unsafe to walk or exercise outside at night. People don’t choose to rent an apartment in a community that does not have a grocery store nearby. No one chooses to take a job that pays a wage impossible to live on, let alone live healthy on. The problem is not lifestyle choices that are bad for one’s health, but having too few choices that negatively affect a person’s health.

When we think about health, we have to think about restoring choices. For people to live healthier, they need good housing, a more livable wage, a good education, and safe spaces to exercise. All of these help build a neighborhood where people look out for each other. To achieve health equity, we have to confront all of the factors that affect a person’s ability to live a healthy life. That’s why as health commissioner, I will use every opportunity to speak out against injustice and rally support for health equity.

Our new initiative, Take Care New York 2020, seeks to do just that. It is the City’s blueprint for giving everyone the chance to live a healthier life. Its goal is twofold — to improve every community’s health, and to make greater strides in groups with the worst health outcomes, so that our city becomes a more equitable place for everyone. TCNY 2020 looks at traditional health factors as well as social factors, like how many people in a community graduated from high school or go to jail.

Additionally, the City’s investment in Pre-K for All will go a long way toward addressing the inequalities we’ve seen emerge so early in life, which reverberate across the lifespan. Investing in early childhood development is an anti-poverty measure, an anti-crime measure, and it is good for both mental and physical health. For example, the number of words a child knows at age 3 predicts how well he will do on reading tests in third grade, predicts his likelihood of graduating from high school, and so on. Early investment is key to undoing decades of injustice.

I believe that achieving health equity is a shared responsibility, and we can only accomplish real change by working together. This is a big challenge, but I am hopeful. New Yorkers are fortunate to have a Mayor and an administration that is committed to addressing longstanding inequality. Every city needs such committed leadership if we are to see a day where someone’s ZIP code does not determine their health. I hope you will join us on this pursuit of equity.

Why do doctors practice race-based medicine?

by Dorothy Roberts, guest contributor

Biological scientists established decades ago that the human species can’t be divided into genetically discrete races. Social scientists have shown that the racial classifications we use today are invented social groupings. And historians of medicine have traced doctors’ current practice of treating patients by race to justifications for slavery. Doctors I’ve talked to readily concede that race is a “crude” proxy for patients’ individual characteristics and clinical indicators. Countless patients have been misdiagnosed and treated unjustly because of their race.

So why do doctors cling so fiercely to race-based medicine?

BWSyringe2One reason is force of habit. For generations, beginning in the slavery era, medical students have been taught to take the patient’s race into account. Race is built into the foundations of medical education, which assumes that people of different races are biologically distinct from each other and suffer from diseases in peculiar ways. What’s more, medical students aren’t given much latitude to question the lessons they are taught about race.  Without a radical disruption, these students go on to train the next generation of doctors with the same flawed racial dogmas.

Another reason is that doctors aren’t immune from commonly-held racial stereotypes and misunderstandings. Most Americans believe some version of a biological concept of race, and doctors are no exception. In fact, the entire field of biology has been plagued by controversy and confusion over the meaning of race. It is not surprising that the medical profession would be influenced by racial thinking that has been perpetuated in U.S. education, culture, and politics for centuries.

In addition, there are institutional and commercial incentives to continue practicing medicine by race. Starting in the 1980s, the federal government required the scientific use of racial categories to ensure greater participation of minorities in clinical research and to address health disparities. Unfortunately, this effort to diversify clinical studies focused on biological rather than social inequalities and has reinforced genetic definitions of race.  In 2005, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the first race-specific drug, a therapy for African-American patients with heart failure, that was repackaged as a race-based pill to enable the cardiologist who developed it to obtain a patent. Labeling drugs by race may be financially advantageous to pharmaceutical companies by providing a marketing niche and an avenue for FDA approval. The biomedical research and pharmaceutical industries have tremendous influence over how medicine is practiced.

Doctors are quick to bristle at any suggestion that treating patients by race results from their own racial prejudice. They disavow any connection to blatantly racist medicine of the past—the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans; unethical medical experimentation on African Americans, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells; Jim Crow segregation of medical services; and mass sterilization of black, Mexican-origin, Puerto Rican, and Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s.

Doctors argue that they are using race for benevolent reasons or, at most, as a benign way to classify their patients. But race is not a benign category. Race was invented to support racism and it is inextricably tied to racial oppression and the struggle against it. There is no biological reason to divide human beings into white, black, yellow, and red. Race seems natural only because we have been taught to see each other this way. Sometimes, when I speak to doctors about this topic, I can see their physical discomfort with giving up their reliance on race. It feels like asking deeply religious people to give up their belief in their deity. Race is more than an ordinary medical feature—it is part of people’s deeply-held identities, their sense of their place in society, and their view of how the world is ordered. This is why ending race-based medicine will require a great leap of imagination, a new vision of humanity tied to a movement for racial justice.

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Global scholar, University of Pennsylvania civil rights sociologist, and law professor Dorothy Roberts exposes the myths of race-based medicine in her TEDMED 2015 talk.