Focus on care of NFL star belies medical racism in the US

As a historian of medical racism, I have observed the overwhelming media response to NFL player Damar Hamlin’s heart-stopping on-field injury with a combination of discomfort and disbelief. On both cable news channels, the surprising collapse of Buffalo Bills security and the ensuing medical drama were the only stories on the air. For those networks, an NFL player’s televised near-death experience was the only news worth watching.

A key element of the television narrative focused on the state-of-the-art medical care made available to the elite athlete in whom the team had made a substantial investment. For example, the NFL’s “Emergency Action Plan” coordinated medical personnel from both teams who administered CPR to Hamlin and appeared to have restored heart function. An automated external defibrillator was in place. Twenty-five medical professionals were on hand to apply their skills to an emergency that might arise. The patient was taken by ambulance to a Level 1 trauma hospital just a few kilometers from the stadium.

As someone who has studied the medical care provided to young African Americans who do not belong to the athletic or entertainment elites, I found the sentimental appeals and overblown media coverage of this young black victim’s ordeal nothing short of disturbing. Why was medical empathy inflated into an exaggerated and semi-falsified concern about the medical danger of a 24-year-old black man? Why did media executives decide that this televised performance of racially integrated medical compassion was necessary?

No one familiar with the everyday racism of the American medical system can watch the world-class medical experience offered to Hamlin without thinking of his anonymous black colleagues, men and women, whose encounters with medical staff are often traumatizing and demoralizing.

Anyone who doubts the reality of “systemic racism” in America’s leading institutions need only read the medical literature of the past 30 years. Here are hundreds of reports of black medical disadvantages related to racial health disparities and, more ominously, racial disparities in treatment that range across the spectrum of medical specialties. These treatment disparities can involve both the behaviors of medical personnel and the medical therapies they provide. This means that there are many young black patients who are unlikely to be greeted in the ER and ICU like sports stars:

The painkiller seeking sickle cell sufferer who is dismissed as a drug seeker. The young black man with brain pain who is stigmatized as a gang member and goes undiagnosed. The young black patient who encounters racial bias in the treatment of deadly sepsis. The young black patient who is treated by an inexperienced surgeon. The black child who is “adult” and denies anxiety-reducing treatments during anesthesia.

The most egregious racial scandal in American medicine is the fact that, unlike the NFL, organized medicine has never created “emergency action plans” to dismantle racially differential diagnoses and treatments that cause medical harm. The leadership ignored the infiltration of racist folklore into medical specialties ranging from obstetrics to psychiatry. It does not examine, much less attempt to regulate, the habits of racially motivated physicians that may harm black patients. And our medical schools do very little to prepare medical students to perform better.

In this context, the media’s tremendous display of concern over Hamlin’s medical condition reveals the utterly anomalous character of this medical event. The special treatment he is receiving creates the temporary illusion of racially integrated medicine and health equity that does not exist for the vast majority of black Americans. This utopian fantasy of excellent medical care for black people is as illusory as the fictional racial integration of the sports world itself.

John Hoberman is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism”. He has taught running and medical courses since 2001.

A version of this editorial appeared on The Hill.

Focus on care of NFL star belies medical racism in the US

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