Why Some People Don’t Trust Doctors

On a recent night on duty at my hospital, I was called to the room of a 60-year-old patient from Puerto Rico. He had a treatable cancer that had now turned end-stage and metastatic. But he refused medical interventions such as intubation or resuscitation.

Upon questioning him, I learned he was not fond of hospitals or medical treatment. In fact, he said he’d never accept chemotherapy from any doctor — even if it could have cured his disease.

He told me that a white physician once came to Puerto Rico and killed unsuspecting people using the same chemicals used to treat cancer. One of the victims was his relative, and the story was passed down through the generations, along with a warning: Never trust doctors.

I’m a black, Florida-based physician who grew up in third world Philadelphia. When I hear a story like this one, I investigate further.

My Puerto Rican patient proved to be no conspiracy theorist.

The man he referred to was Cornelius Rhoads, who traveled to Puerto Rico in 1931 to study anemia.

Soon after, Rhoads wrote a racist screed to a colleague: “What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8.”

Hospital staff in Puerto Rico discovered the letter, spurring a scandal. A government investigation cleared Rhoads of his own claims, and he went on to start what we now know as modern-day chemotherapy. Yet a University of Puerto Rico researcherlater found evidence to support the original allegations.

Throughout our history, black and brown people have repeatedly been used as test subjects without their consent, from the Tuskegee experiment that shortened the lives of black men with syphilis, to forced sterilization of unsuspecting poor black women in Mississippi.

While I don’t know any doctors who emulate Rhoads, more subtle biases abound. A 2015 survey found that 50 percent of medical students at the University of Virginia think black people naturally feel less pain. Nationally, other studies show, black people are under-treated for pain.

Doctors are also 71 percent less likely to suggest routine clinical screening such as colonoscopy to black patients with a family history of colon cancer — and 31 percent less likely to Latino patients — compared to white patients, even though these patients are more likely to die from the cancer.

These biases and others have horrifying effects. For instance, black women experience over 3 times more pregnancy-related deaths than white mothers.

Such cases remain in the minds of many people of color when we go to the doctor — and in my mind, too, as a black doctor.

Here’s a prescription for American physicians: Stop violating the Hippocratic oath. Physicians must confront their biases by first recognizing what they are. The same way these are learned, they can be unlearned.

Take implicit bias tests to probe some of your own hidden prejudices. Read books like Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, which medical schools should make required reading. Join or start a local chapter of Campaign Against Racism to identify institutional bias and find solutions.

Finally, if patients say they don’t trust doctors, understand that they’re probably right on some level.

My Puerto Rican patient died before I could apologize for the evil that had been done to his family by people who swore to do no harm. How many more people have to die feeling that way?

Armen Henderson is a Florida-based physician from Philadelphia and founder of the Dade County Street Response. This op-ed was produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, first published by the Philadelphia Inquirer,

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
September 20, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Unipolar Governance of the Multipolar World
Rob Urie
Strike for the Environment, Strike for Social Justice, Strike!
Miguel Gutierrez
El Desmadre: The Colonial Roots of Anti-Mexican Violence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Pompeo and Circumstance
Andrew Levine
Why Democrats Really Should Not All Get Along But Sometimes Must Anyway
Louis Proyect
A Rebellion for the Wild West
T.J. Coles
A Taste of Their Own Medicine: the Politicians Who Robbed Iranians and Libyans Fear the Same for Brexit Britain
H. Bruce Franklin
How We Launched Our Forever War in the Middle East
Lee Hall
Mayor Obedience Training, From the Pet Products Industry
Louis Yako
Working in America: Paychecks for Silence
Michael D. Yates
Radical Education
Jonathan Cook
Israelis Have Shown Netanyahu the Door. Can He Inflict More Damage Before He Exits?
Valerie Reynoso
The Rising Monopoly of Monsanto-Bayer
John Steppling
American Psychopathy
Ralph Nader
25 Ways the Canadian Health Care System is Better than Obamacare for the 2020 Elections
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid Made Official: Deal of the Century is a Ploy and Annexation is the New Reality
Vincent Emanuele
Small Town Values
John Feffer
The Threat of Bolton Has Retreated, But Not the Threat of War
David Rosen
Evangelicals, Abstinence, Abortion and the Mainstreaming of Sex
Judy Rohrer
“Make ‘America’ White Again”: White Resentment Under the Obama & Trump Presidencies
John W. Whitehead
The Police State’s Language of Force
Kathleen Wallace
Noblesse the Sleaze
Farzana Versey
Why Should Kashmiris be Indian?
Nyla Ali Khan
Why Are Modi and His Cohort Paranoid About Diversity?
Shawn Fremstad
The Official U.S. Poverty Rate is Based on a Hopelessly Out-of-Date Metric
Mel Gurtov
No War for Saudi Oil!
Robert Koehler
‘I’m Afraid You Have Humans’
David Swanson
Every Peace Group and Activist Should Join Strike DC for the Earth’s Climate
Scott Owen
In Defense of Non-violent Actions in Revolutionary Times
Jesse Jackson
Can America Break Its Gun Addiction?
Priti Gulati Cox
Sidewalk Museum of Congress: Who Says Kansas is Flat?
Mohamad Shaaf
The Current Political Crisis: Its Roots in Concentrated Capital with the Resulting Concentrated Political Power
Max Moran
Revolving Door Project Probes Thiel’s White House Connection
Arshad Khan
Unhappy India
Nick Pemberton
Norman Fucking Rockwell! and 24 Other Favorite Albums
Nicky Reid
The Bigotry of ‘Hate Speech’ and Facebook Fascism
Paul Armentano
To Make Vaping Safer, Legalize Cannabis
Jill Richardson
Punching Through Bad Headlines
Jessicah Pierre
What the Felicity Huffman Scandal Says About America
John Kendall Hawkins
Draining the Swamp, From the Beginning of Time
Julian Rose
Four Funerals and a Wedding: A Brief History of the War on Humanity
Victor Grossman
Film, Music and Elections in Germany
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ahmet Altan’s “I Will Never See the World Again”
David Yearsley
Jazz is Activism
Elliot Sperber
Captains of Industry