The past two years have shed new light on the long history of racism in the health care system and the structural barriers to health care faced by people of color to this day.
So it’s no surprise that a racial health gap still exists across the country. The researchers found that the problem is particularly acute in Chicago. The American Medical Association reported that among the 30 largest US cities, Chicago tops the list “with 3,341 excess black deaths.” And that number is growing.
Even before COVID-19 vaccines became available, questions were raised about whether certain populations would rightly be particularly reluctant to take them. Many efforts to address this problem by educating people about the effectiveness of vaccines seem to have paid off.
Analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that “Blacks and Hispanics were less likely than their white counterparts to receive a vaccine, but these disparities narrowed over time and reversed for Hispanics.”
Our new research looks at a larger question: how the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine has changed people’s relationship with the health care system as a whole. On this point, the figures are striking.
Higher levels of self-representation
The survey reveals that across all demographic groups, Americans are increasingly active in learning about medical treatments. This shift is particularly strong among African Americans and Latinos. In these groups, 6 in 10 people said they had read clinical trials about vaccines or treatments in the past 12 months, compared to less than half of white respondents. And 58% and 55% of black and Latino respondents, respectively, read medical journals, compared to 35% of Caucasians.
Likewise, more Americans have become “super challengers,” asking their doctors more questions before agreeing to a drug or vaccine, and sometimes rejecting their doctor’s first recommendation. Again, this change is particularly strong in black and Latino patients. More than half of these respondents said they requested a treatment different from their doctor’s first recommendation, compared to a third of Caucasians.
The vaccine rollout has also created a seismic shift in how Americans view pharmaceutical companies. Americans now largely have preferences for one pharmaceutical company over another. These allegiances are so strong that people think these companies – including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – are similar to well-known brands like Apple; 62% of black patients and 63% of Latino patients say they always or often check labels now to see which company makes a drug before deciding to take it.
This change involves certain risks. When people are exposed to misinformation, they’re more likely to refuse their doctor’s advice, even if it’s the best thing for them. Our survey finds that misinformation about health care is pervasive, with the overwhelming majority of respondents from all demographic groups reporting being exposed to it at least once a week. So challenging your doctor isn’t always a good thing.
But overall, the healthcare providers we interviewed said patient empowerment is more positive than negative. The key is to use it to help guide people in the right direction.
Our study shows how to do it. Patients — especially black and Latino Americans — are looking to pharmaceutical companies to act as information brokers. Through social media channels, podcasts and other outlets, they want these companies to take three major steps: help distinguish between false and accurate health information; be realistic and honest about the realities of illnesses and treatments; and show what happens behind the scenes of pharmaceutical companies.
The study shows that people are reachable in a new way. The new awareness and interest in drug and vaccine manufacturers provides a learning path. People want to hear from the pharmaceutical companies. They listen and learn. They then bring this information with them to their doctor’s appointments.
Of course, making sure people have accurate information is only one piece of the puzzle. People of color continue to experience health disparities and inequalities, including social determinants of health, access to care, digital health and more. It will take a lot of work to fix it.
The more the health care system learns about how to reach communities that have long been neglected, the more hope there is for a healthier future.
Tayla Mahmud is Executive Vice President of Healthy Equity and Multicultural Strategy at M Booth Health, a healthcare consulting and communications agency. Mark Westall is the organization’s senior vice president of strategy, insight and innovation.
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