Race still a factor in health outcomes

Black cardiac arrest victims are more likely to die in certain hospitals -- and income doesn't explain it

Published May 2, 2011 7:20PM (EDT)

When it comes to debates over healthcare, one of the oldest shibboleths out there is the notion that gaps in health outcomes between African-Americans and whites exist because, as a group, African-Americans are disproportionately lower on the income scale. In an America that pretends it has become a "post-racial" society, the idea is that economic stratification -- not racism -- is the primary component of every problem.

Decades after the landmark successes of the civil rights movement, this narrative is reassuring -- but it is an insidious oxymoron. By acknowledging troubling data (in this case, higher death/disease rates among African-Americans), the story line lets us feel enlightened by resisting this era's penchant for willful ignorance. Yet, its explanation for the data ("it's economic class not race") is willfully ignorant in itself. The latest proof of this comes from a new University of Pennsylvania study:

Black cardiac arrest victims are more likely to die when they're treated in hospitals that care for a large black population than when they're brought to hospitals with a greater proportion of white patients ... Only 31 percent of black patients treated in hospitals that care for a higher proportion of black patients survived to be discharged from the hospital, compared to 46 of those cared for in predominantly white hospitals... [The] results also found that black patients were much more likely to be admitted to hospitals with low survival rates.

Unlike recent disturbing findings from Harvard and the American Cancer Society, these results cannot be explained away as a product of economics alone. Quite clearly, race is a major factor in the Penn data.

Of course, the results also imply that the racism at work here is of a less obvious kind. While overt old-school racism definitely still exists on the individual doctor-to-patient level, and while that individual racism may be partially at work in the decisions to send black patients to lower-performing hospitals, the Penn study suggests the primary form of healthcare racism today is more institutional in nature.

"Since cardiac arrest patients need help immediately and are brought to the nearest hospital, these findings appear to show geographic disparities" in healthcare, says the Penn study's lead researcher -- and geographic disparities often reflect institutionally racist housing policies and healthcare funding formulas. These kind of disparities are more difficult to see -- and therefore more easily hidden by today's deceptive "post-racial" bromides and/or the class-only analyses that often define discussions of inequality.

Coincidentally, Penn's findings came out in the same week as another new study -- this one showing that emergency rooms are less likely to test young white females for sexually transmitted diseases than young black females. No doubt, the same Caucasian vicitmization demagogues who claim America persecutes white people will insist the STD data prove African-Americans are really the advantaged ones in our healthcare system. But anyone not named Pat Buchanan should be able to admit that the latter results likely reflect persistent racial stereotypes about promiscuity -- not some privileged status for African-American women.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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