MAXWELL:  Seeking treatment everyone deserves

7/4/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Every two weeks, Helen, my oldest sister, dutifully travels from Palmetto to Fort Lauderdale, a four-hour trip one way, to accompany our mother to one doctor or another. I make the trip when Helen cannot, about eight times a year. We did the same for our father, who lived three hours away in Fort Pierce. He died in April.

My father would not go to the doctors alone because he did not trust them. Over the years, all of his doctors _ except one _ were white. He did not believe that they would give him the treatment he needed. He believed that his doctors disliked blacks and did not value him as a human being.

He wanted me to accompany him because he knew that I would demand fair treatment, that, when I was there, the doctors would inform us of the full range of treatments available. Furthermore, I would always research his symptoms and have a long list of questions for the doctor. I am convinced that our father lived as long as he did because Helen or I accompanied him to the doctors.

Again, we are doing the same for our mother because she, too, believes that doctors will not offer her the best treatment if they are not encouraged to do so. In fact, Helen is spending this long Fourth of July weekend in Fort Lauderdale tending to our mother’s medical concerns. More than eight years ago, Helen and I loudly demanded that our mother receive bypass surgery. Two days later, she was on the operating table. Less than two weeks later, she was at home cooking collard greens.

For decades, medical studies have suggested that African-Americans like my parents have good reason be wary of the treatment they receive from a mostly white health industry. The findings of one recent Duke University study, published in the journal Stroke, show that blacks are less likely to receive procedures that can prevent stroke.

The researchers combed the medical records of 803 men older than 45 who had been diagnosed with a mini-stroke in four of the top veterans hospitals in the nation. They determined the patients’ eligibility for two procedures. One would surgically remove blockages in the neck arteries, and the other would simply search for clogs. As my father would have known, blacks eligible for the procedures were less likely than whites to be referred.

To their credit, according to a summary of the findings in the Los Angeles Times, the researchers did not automatically presume that race was the major cause of such disparate treatment. They concentrated on stroke because it is the third-leading cause of death and of the main causes of disability for American adults and because stroke is the most important factor in the higher mortality rate among blacks.

The researchers put in place enough controlled variables to determine that race alone gave white patients a 50 percent better chance of being referred than their black counterparts. “This study has broad implications,” said Dr. Kevin Schulman of Georgetown University, whose study last February showed that doctors in the United States are more likely to order certain heart disease tests for white males than for women and blacks.

Dr. Eugene Oddone of Duke University and his fellow researchers suggest that such racial prejudice among white doctors might be subconscious and could be the result of how they interpret information. I do not believe that suggestion for a second. My sister does not believe it. My father did not believe it. And my mother does not believe it.

The researchers also suggest that the findings may indicate lower numbers for blacks receiving aggressive procedures because fewer blacks opt for such operations. They may have a point. I want to point out, however, that if my father was typical of many other blacks, the fear of being mistreated made him suspicious of some invasive operations. His fear came directly from his experiences.

I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert on how to solve what is obviously an unnecessary crisis. Doubtless, medical schools could do a better job of teaching future doctors to respect all of their patients, regardless of their skin color. If the health-care profession is a reflection of larger American society, then I have little faith that blacks will get the treatment they deserve any time soon.

And my mother will continue to call on my sister or me to accompany her to the doctor.