Racism in the Healthcare System: How History Impacts Vaccine Distrust

by Molly Dye
May 6th, 2021

As COVID-19 vaccine rollout develops in the United States, it is important to understand why the Black community remains hesitant about vaccination at higher rates than other groups.

According to the Pew Research Center, over 37 percent of Black Americans have said that they will not seek out a Coronavirus vaccine while 34 percent have expressed low trust in the vaccine research and development process. These concerns surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine do not stem from unfounded reasoning; rather, they are the result of decades of mistreatment and racism toward the Black community in healthcare settings.

Dr. Britanni James discussed with NBC why Black Americans have been hesitant to trust the vaccine, describing that “it is not paranoia, it is not that Black people don’t ‘get it’ or are simply uneducated and unintelligent about their health. The reality is that their worries have been earned and will not be corrected until medicine and public health and the government reckon with the past and what has been done to Black and brown people.”

Racism in the healthcare community has long impacted the Black community, and one incident that reveals the horrors behind their mistreatment was the Tuskegee experimental study, which began in 1932 lasted until 1972. In the experiment, doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 600 Black men from Alabama intending to track the progression of syphilis.

Throughout the study, doctors monitored the participants' syphilis diagnoses and symptoms but refused them proper care even after penicillin treatment became the recommended treatment in 1947. Throughout 40 years of study, the Black men recruited for this experiment suffered severe health complications while some went blind and insane as they were actively denied treatment. By the time the study ended in 1972, 28 participants died from syphilis while 100 others died from related complications as they were actively denied treatment. Moreover, several spouses and children of the participants contracted the disease.

In addition to Tuskegee, Black Americans battled other forms of discrimination and abuse in medical settings throughout the 20th century. In 1951, doctors in Maryland retrieved cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks soon before her death and used them for research without her knowledge or consent. While doctors and researchers used Lacks’ cells to revolutionize modern medicine, there was no effort to honor her memory and her family received no compensation.

Though these historical incidents provide important context to the distrust of healthcare professionals, racism and abuse is something that Black Americans continue to face daily at the doctor’s office. Research finds that Black Americans often receive lower-quality care or simply a lack of treatment for heart failure, pneumonia, and prenatal care, and routine practices in the doctor’s office treat black patients differently than white patients. As Black communities have persistently received poor quality care from medical establishments, it becomes difficult to trust any sort of vaccine option even when it comes to COVID-19.

At this point, experts and medical providers are beginning to emphasize the importance of providing Black patients with proper care and letting them know that Black doctors and physicians have been at the forefront of vaccine development and rollout. Dr. James told NBC that having Black leaders take on the role of sharing vaccine information publicly is essential, noting that “we need to listen to Black and brown leadership, places like Black churches, nonprofits that understand the communities.”

As medical professionals look toward the future, the healthcare system must emphasize the voices of Black scientists, researchers, and doctors to empower Black Americans to seek medical treatment and trust their healthcare providers.


https://www.history.com/news/the-infamous-40-year-tuskegee-study https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02494-z https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10599607/


https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/upshot/bad-medicine-the-harm-that-comes-from-racism.html https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/tuskegee-study-medical-distrust-research/487439/ https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMpv2035827 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/experts-warn-low-covid-vaccine-trust-among-black-americans-n1250743