UVA Health Doctors explain racism’s negative impact on physical health

UVA Health Doctors explain racism’s negative impact on physical health
UVA Health doctors are speaking out about the health disparities and impacts of racism and systemic inequality. (Source: WVIR)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A group of doctors at UVA Health, including 5th District Congressional candidate Dr. Cameron Webb, are actively working to tackle the issue of racial inequality in care and outcomes for black patients. They say racism is more than just a matter of opinion or a societal issue. Instead, it’s a public health crisis.

For Black doctors in central Virginia and across America, the health impact of racism is more than something they’re treating and fighting directly every day: It’s something they are living with on a daily basis.

“It’s not a benign thing, racism,” UVA Health Hospitalist and 5th District Congressional Candidate Dr. Cameron Webb said. “It’s not something that’s just a matter of people’s opinions and impressions. It actually has a real physical and physiological effect.”

That fight can wear on black physicians, and that strain that has only been heightened during a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color.

“I’m having difficulty describing it just because it’s so visceral, it really cuts to your soul,” UVA Health Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Director Dr. Taison Bell said. “It’s hard to put that in words sometimes what it feels like to have a list of patients and families, and you know where they’re going through. You might be going through a version of it yourself, in your family.”

The doctors point to the many documented disparities between black patients and white patients as areas that need attention. Some have been identified and discussed in the medical community for decades.

“We’ll start with disparities in access to care because again, you can talk about health outcomes, they all come with reasons.” Dr. Webb explained. “There’s huge disparities in access to care in terms of who has insurance, and then even beyond that, insurance to pay for the care that they need.”

Not only is access to care lacking across the board for Black patients, but outcomes are significantly worse on average.

“African-Americans have higher death rates for eight-in-13 leading causes of death,” Anesthesiologist Dr. Ebony Hilton-Buchholz said. “That includes cardiovascular disease, neurovascular disease, influenza and pneumonia, and complications related to kidney dysfunction.”

Disparities can begin even at birth. Black infants face mortality rates twice as high as White babies. Maternal mortality rates are four times as high in black patients vs white patients.

“Even in the emergency department for instance, we know that people who are racial ethnic minorities, we under treat their pain,” UVA Emergency Medicine Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb explained. “We literally under treat their pain.”

The doctors say the root cause of the disparities can be traced back to racism itself. Black and brown individuals have a higher allostatic load, the accumulated wear and tear on the body of facing repeated stress. Stress like living under the yoke of structural and systemic racism.

“What that does is it revs up your body’s kind of fight-or-flight response at pretty high levels, a lot of the time,” Dr. Cameron Webb explained. “That’s why you see the higher levels of high blood pressure. That’s why you see higher levels of cortisol, which can be related to diabetes.”

When counting African immigrants, Black and African-Americans only make up 6% of physicians nationwide, despite accounting for 13% of the national population. The doctors say that increasing representation will go a long way to helping the issue in the short-term, but to solve the health disparities for good will mean tackling systemic inequality.

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