The last time I went to see a clinician was the first time I realized that my health was connected to my experiences as a black woman. At first, I just wanted to know what I could do about the acne flare up that had come after a period of extreme stress. She asked why I was stressed. I said school. Then she asked, “Is school really the only cause of stress in your life?” I was taken aback. Normally, clinicians are primarily concerned with my symptoms and whether or not to prescribe medication, but from the look on her face, I could tell that she genuinely cared.
I proceeded to explain that trying to cope with the recent shootings of unarmed black men while dealing with anti-blackness at school was challenging. When she asked why, I explained that it was because I have a brother who is seventeen years old and that I did not want anything to happen to him. I cried in the middle of the examination room, her hand gently holding my arm, comforting me, no prescription necessary.
Image Source: Na Gen Imaging
Detached concern for patients has become normalized in the field of medicine. It has become so extreme that clinicians often forget that patients have lives and experiences that also affect their health. Clinicians have been conditioned to not care too much and patients have been socialized not to share too much, especially if they do not want to have a follow up visit. It makes sense, considering that clinicians and healthcare are considered luxuries for those who can afford to take the time off and pay the cost for visiting a clinician. The relationship between clinicians and people of color, specifically Black and African American people, does not help. Redlining has made it such that some families—especially those of lower socioeconomic status—experience health in a very different way. In certain areas of Louisville, Kentucky, “…people die three, five, even ten years sooner than in others,” as explained in the documentary Unnatural Causes: In Sickness and in Wealth. The hospitals these familes have immediate access to tend to be overcrowded because it makes more economical sense for more hospitals to be in wealthier areas. In her essay “In Poor Health: Supermarket Redlining and Urban Nutrition,” Elizabeth Eisenhauer explains that, “African Americans and Hispanics, groups with high and growing rates of diabetes diagnosis also have the highest rates of poverty — 27% of African Americans and Hispanics live at or below the poverty line.” It doesn’t help that food deserts are often experienced in these same areas.
Understandably, it can be hard for clinicians to dive into all the details of a patient’s life when they must see a certain number of patients per day. What they can do is dive a little deeper than they do. Is the patient underweight because they have an eating disorder, or because they are living off the most basic, cheap food staples? Does the patient experiencing migraines need prescription medication, or a day off? Am I stressed because of school or because issues of systemic racism have made it such that I no longer feel safe? Ask your patient.
Feature Image Source: Hands Up Don’t Shoot copy by Joe Brusky