By Donna Alexander, Social Worker, CAMH
Published May 6, 2016
Do black lives matter in Health Care?
I suspect that this question will elicit discomfort among some people but is has to be addressed because living in one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is easy to assume that the same quality of services is provided to people irrespective of race.
However, the reality is vastly different from what we assume and layered in complexities. We now know that people of African descent do not access health care services at the rate of the rest of the population and that their health outcomes after accessing services is worse than any other group.
There are numerous factors that contribute to the current situation. From an historical perspective, we know that during the days of slavery medical procedures were done on slaves without their consent and generally without the use of anesthesia because of a belief that their tolerance for pain was higher.
We also are aware of the Tuskegee medical trial when the cure for Syphilis was withheld from black men because scientists wanted to track the progression of the disease from infection to death.
More recently, we learned of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose death from ovarian cancer lead to one of the most important breakthrough in medicine in the last century. Ms. Lacks possessed so-called “immortal cells” that allowed scientists to grow cells outside the human body, something they were unable to do for decades.
These HeLa cell cultures have been used extensively for research around the world and have been instrumental in the development of a vaccine for polio as well as cancer research and countless other medical advances.
Millions of dollars have been made by the use of her cells yet her children lived in extreme poverty. The cells were taken without her family’s knowledge and consent and despite a court order in 2013 to compensate her family, to this day no compensation has been made.
The issues of the inequalities in policing have been very topical lately. Recently Black Lives Matter Toronto demonstrated outside Toronto Police Headquarters to protest the death of Andrew Loku, a mentally ill black man who was killed by Toronto Police in his apartment building.
The death of Mr. Loku and other black people with mental illness remind us of the multifaceted intersection of the systems. The loss of lives calls into question certain aspects of these systems and beyond this, given all that has happened, it is easy to see how some would conclude that black lives do not matter.
Since November 2015, I have been serving on the Black Lives Matter in Healthcare initiative out of the Health Equity office at Mount Sinai Hospital. The ultimate goal is to address the inequities in health outcomes for black people by implementing more equitable processes.
We will be completing surveys of former patients in the community to obtain qualitative data of their experiences within the health care system. We will also be surveying black service providers about their experiences working in health care organizations to learn how their experiences of racism impact their health and abilities to perform on a professional basis.
We are also planning a conference in February of 2017 to focus on this issue. We are looking forward to facilitating progressive discussions relating to these issues in health care that racialized people face. I know talking about these issues makes some people uncomfortable, but I am hoping that we will be able to discuss them honestly, as a first step to addressing them.
I look forward to increased dialogue around this issue and welcome your support throughout this process.