February 1 marks the beginning of Black History Month, an annual observance that serves as a celebration of the countless contributions made by the Black community. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves and educated at Harvard University, is the Founder of Black History Month, a poignant reminder of centuries of struggle, and an opportunity to work together toward a more equitable future.
Throughout history, achievements made by Black Americans have had a significant impact on every aspect of our world, including healthcare. While often ignored or pushed aside at the time, these contributions have led to advancements in phlebotomy, neurosurgery, cardiology, and every other field of study—continuing to positively impact the trajectory of future medical innovations.
But while the impact of Black Americans has always been a large contributing factor in the improvement of medicine, the community itself continues to face significant health disparities and disadvantages in access to high-quality care, as well as a deficit in Black healthcare providers serving areas in need.
This puts healthcare leaders in a position to make a difference while also supporting the ongoing goal of filling the growing gap in healthcare workers, especially those among disadvantaged populations.
The History of Healthcare
Join us in observing Black History Month 2023 by celebrating some of the countless Black innovators of the past who forever changed medicine, while taking note of how we can create a more equitable future for those underrepresented in healthcare.
- Dr. Charles Drew is known as the “Father of Blood Banking” due to his pivotal role in the advancement of blood work, ultimately leading to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew explored best practices for banking blood transfusions in his doctoral research, which led to him establishing the first large-scale blood banks. Drew is also credited with creating life-saving blood transportation and donation stations in World War II, working closely with the American Red Cross and as the director of its first blood bank.
- Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first Black cardiologist to perform a successful open-heart surgery in 1893. Not only was he a pioneer of cardiology, but he was also a dedicated healthcare educator, founding America’s first non-segregated hospital, Chicago’s Provident Hospital. Williams demonstrated a lifelong commitment to advancing medicine while breaking racial barriers, co-founding the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black medical practitioners.
- Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a pioneer of cancer research and chemotherapy. During a time when there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding chemotherapy, Dr. Wright dared to research and test chemicals for effective cancer treatment. She was the first African American woman to be named associate dean of a nationally recognized medical institution in 1967, which at the time, was the highest rank ever achieved by an African American woman.
- Dr. James McCune Smith became the first university-trained African-American physician in the United States, attending the University of Glasgow after being turned away from American universities due to his race. He earned three degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. He used his doctorate to open a pharmacy, making him the first Black American to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States, as well as the first Black physician to be published in American medical journals. Dr. Smith was a prominent abolitionist, working closely with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People in 1853, the first permanent national organization for African Americans.
The State of Healthcare Today
While the state of healthcare continues to advance, there remains a painful lack of healthcare access, representation, and high-quality care for patients of color and majority-minority communities.
When it comes to accessing healthcare, a lack of insurance is one factor affecting these populations. In the U.S., nearly 30 million people lack health insurance. Of those 30 million, roughly half are Black, Hispanic, or Asian. According to the CDC, compared to 9% of white adults, around 15% of Black adults and 31% of Hispanic adults under the age of 65 were uninsured in 2021. Minority populations are also less likely to have health insurance, more likely to face cost-related barriers to getting care, and more likely to incur medical debt—all factors that can directly or indirectly keep a person stuck in their current circumstances and incapable of affording other critical resources.
Not only are these communities underserved, but the treatment received by populations of color has historically been of poorer quality than the treatment of their white counterparts. In 2021, 45% of people surveyed reported feeling that the care they receive is worse than it should be.
Also, while minority communities have the greatest reported need for increased mental health access, these groups receive the least access and support to fundamental resources. Racial disparities in the healthcare system are a major factor in this. A lack of behavioral health professionals means fewer resources for those in need.
These often-systemic disadvantages prompt action. As healthcare professionals, each of us is responsible for cultivating an industry and environment that is inclusive, reflective of all communities, and capable of helping to lift all people. While we reflect on the past contributions of Black innovators, we must also direct an eye to where our world is today and how we can work toward a more accessible and equitable future.
The Future of Healthcare
Despite challenges within the healthcare industry, healthcare professionals are presented with a unique opportunity to address these disparities. Innovations like telehealth show a promising impact on expanding the range and quality of healthcare access to those in need. Specialists can connect with a wider range of patients in a more convenient format, maximizing the number of patients treated each day. Telehealth use has grown by 38% since 2019, making it one of healthcare’s biggest new assets.
Healthcare organizations and institutions are not only recognizing the need for more equitable care, but they are also adjusting their practices accordingly to train the future generation of medical professionals.
As Herzing University’s Vice President of Inclusion & Community Impact, Karen Nelson, says, “An increase in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts can be seen nationwide across healthcare facilities. This includes re-examining how healthcare is taught and ensuring that all communities are represented in the training of healthcare students. Herzing University is committed to doing our part in achieving health equity and advancing opportunities for all. By doing so, today’s healthcare work with be filled with more informed and prepared professionals, while tomorrow’s influx of new talent will be of the highest standard to provide quality care to every person of every background.”
Black history is America’s history. You can rewrite future chapters of this history by opening your mind to the daily challenges facing disadvantaged populations, reflecting and assessing your role as a healthcare professional, and taking the time to ensure you are implementing this mindset into actionable steps every day. At Herzing, there are many programs—including the work being done on mental health awareness through SupportLinc—designed to assist with broadening student awareness about issues relating to diversity and community inclusion. Learn more about our effort to continue to have these important conversations by visiting Herzing University’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.