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Mistrust between Black Americans and health care systems due to historic discrimination

Posted at 9:20 AM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 14:48:16-05

PHOENIX — The start of a new year is a time when a lot of people are making resolutions to keep better health. But historically, African Americans have faced a unique set of challenges to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

High blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease are just a few health issues that plague the African American community.

Local cardiologist, Dr. Paul Underwood, says a lot of what ails is due to a poor diet.

"If you're not able to have adequate nutrition or preventive nutrition, then it puts you at risk for developing some of these conditions," Underwood said.

Many poor eating habits, he says, can be traced all the way back to slavery, where Black slaves were forced to eat what their owners tossed aside, like the discarded parts of a pig or chicken.

"We had very limited resources at that time and those foods were necessary for survival," Underwood said.

Some slaves were allowed to grow vegetables in small gardens, but most resorted to adding extra salt, cornmeal and fat to make meals stretch and taste better. The early origins of what's now called "Soul Food" and part of Black culture.

"Those foods we see now are not as healthy," he said. Dr. Underwood says if you got sick, options for Black patients were limited back then.

In most cases, there was only one Black doctor for the entire community and they had to treat patients in facilities with fewer resources and had no access to the latest equipment and medical technology.

Underwood says it wasn't until the first big pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1919, that Black doctors finally gained access.

"They finally started to allow Black physicians to go to the White hospitals to treat White patients, but they still did not allow the Black patients to go to the White hospitals.

Discrimination of the past had led to a mistrust in the health care system that many African Americans still have to this day.

Berdetta Hodge has thalassemia minor, a rare blood condition that's led to heart failure and other health conditions. For years she says doctors couldn't figure out what was wron, and she believes it's because they didn't want to consider her race as a factor.

"We are commonly misdiagnosed for things, because the way our body is affected is not the same," Hodge said. "And if you're not looking for it in an African American Woman or African American male... you miss it," she said.

Hodge says finding a Black doctor was critical in her journey back to health.

"It took Dr. Underwood to determine that we have to treat each person separately, and you have to look at race when it comes to health," Hodge said.

Berdetta's son, Jevin D. Hodge, has been by his mother's side every step of the way, seeing first hand the disconnect between African Americans and the health care system. Priority number one, he says, is more trained professionals to help patients with things like taking notes and keeping up with insurance while the patient is sick.

"They need people to help them. Not everyone is in a situation where they have family to support them, or a colleague to support them, or a significant other. We need more patient navigators within our health care system," he said.

Both doctor and patient agrees, African Americans need to hold themselves more accountable as well. They say, do the research, seek programs and take pride in eating healthy and get proper exercise to prevent becoming a patient at all.

"In fact, it's better to go to your doctor and take preventive measures, so you don't become sick. But that attitude hasn't really permeated into the Black community to a significant degree," Dr. Underwood said.

"We don't have a health care system, we have a sick care system in this country. We have a system where, you go get care when you're sick, not to keep up with your health," said Jevin Hodge.

Finally, Dr. Underwood says African Americans have to pay more attention to their mental health.

In a recent study by conducted by Cigna and reported by the CDC, it concludes African Americans are only 20 percent as likely to report mental distress, and 50 percent less likely to seek treatment for it compared to their White counterparts.