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Historical racism in the United States has played a role in many shortcomings in Black American history. One of the disparities many Black communities face is in their health. The health crisis in Black communities is at an all-time high, and recently Dr. Courtney Walker explained why.

Walker is the medical account director at Novo Nordisk. At a zoom conference hosted by the Black Health Network, Walker spoke about historical racism and its effects. 

“We know people in minority groups, especially the African-American group in America, have many reasons to distrust medical experts. In the 19th century, we know there was a doctor named Simms, who made advancements in gynecology by doing experimental surgery on enslaved Black women without their consent and anesthesia. This speaks to some of the issues we still see today with African-American women not getting proper treatment or proper attention to their pain like their counterparts of other skin colors,” said Walker. 

“Not only did we have the Tuskegee Experiment, but in 1951 John Hopkins took cancer cells from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent to do medical research,” added Walker. “The hospital made billions of dollars and had a large impact on cancer research.  This medical atrocity is based on systemic racism, there is an intersection between social determinants of health and disparities by race and ethnicity.” 

Walker briefly touched on the 1619 project written by Nicole Hannah Jones that shows how Black Americans were in slavery longer than they have been free. He said that this fact explains why health equity and systemic racism intersect within the healthcare system. 

“Systemic racism plays a huge part in why there is a poor health outcome for the African-American communities,” said Walker. 

He then used the tragic death of Shalon Irving as an example of how systemic racism leads to health disparities. Irving died three weeks after giving birth. She had high blood pressure. 

“Irving’s death shifted the focus on racial disparities and maternal mortalities in African-American mothers, as they are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than White mothers,” Walker said. “From 2000 to 2014, maternal mortality rates dropped in Africa, while rates increased in America for Black women. African-American women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease, 71 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer, and 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or birth-related causes.” 

Walker explained that health equity will remove barriers so that everybody gets the same opportunity and access to health care. 

“Our goal is health equity, we are going to approach it through social terms of health and impact people who need it most,” he said. 

He then pointed to a study done with health executives and clinical leaders in healthcare delivery that questions how their organizations will advance health equity, as COVID-19 highlighted the fact that the people most affected by the virus had prior negative health issues. 

“The Black community needs to be part of the improvement of health equity by taking advantage of the medical experts and institutions around them. The steps they can take are going to the doctor more often, making sure they are given the proper attention and treatment, and forging a relationship with their doctors so they know how to better serve them,” Walker said. 

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