CAMD Scholar Irene Kwon ’21 Analyzes Racial Bias in American Healthcare

“Can healthcare be racist? Can science be biased?” These are the questions Irene Kwon ’21 contemplated in her Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar presentation “The Medical Mystery: Racial Disparities in the American Healthcare System” held on Friday, October 30 over Zoom. 

Kwon tackled the deeply integrated culture of racial discrimination in American hospitals, and specifically around maternal health. According to Kwon, the United States has one of the worst life expectancies, obesity rates, and infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. 

“For a country that invests 3.5 trillion dollars into the health care system, the track record of the United States for providing quality medical care to Americans is certainly disappointing, to put it lightly. When compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (O.E.C.D.) countries, the United States has one of the lowest life expectancies, one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates and ever increasing rates of obesity, and other related health issues,” said Kwon.

Kwon continued, “When we put it like that [it] sounds bad, but what’s worse is that these statistics do not reveal the full picture. If we consider health outcomes for Americans on the basis of race, there is no denying that there is a systemic inequality in our health care system.” 

Maternal mortality is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant, and in the U.S., the maternal mortality rate is extremely high. Kwon believes that race affects the maternal mortality rate of various demographics. Kwon mentioned that according to Amnesty International, Black American women experience a 4x greater risk of dying from pregnancy related complications than their white counterparts, and a 5.6x greater risk for high risk pregnancies. Furthermore, some areas of the American South with high black populations suffer a higher maternal mortality rate than Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Kwon.

“In regions with a high black population, such as specific areas of the American South, the maternal mortality rate for women of color is higher than that of all of Sub Saharan Africa. Considering that Sub Saharan Africa as a whole spent six point 1% of their total GDP on public health, as opposed to the 9.5% of O.E.C.D. countries, the fact that we can even draw a level comparison between Sub-Saharan Africa and regions of the United States is alarming,” said Kwon. 

Kwon focused on demonstrating that scientific racism, the belief that empirical evidence can justify racial discrimination because different races are biologically different, affects a patient’s quality of treatment and outcome. She found that though anesthesia was commercially available, white physicians, such as the widely-recognized father of modern gynecology James Sims,  chose to not use it on their black patients during the 19th century solely because of this belief. 

“One myth that was incredibly pervasive during this era was a mistaken belief that  Black people could not feel pain. Not only was this falsehood used to justify brutal treatment of enslaved Americans by their white enslavers, but it also allowed white physicians to exploit Black bodies as medical subjects for scientific experiments,” said Kwon. 

According to Kwon, in a 2016 survey, the participants who more strongly believed myths about biological differences between races were also more likely to assign black patients lower pain ratings for the same medical scenarios, such as slamming your hand in the car door. The same study also found that over half of the sample population were white medical students.  

“What we can take away from this study is that the incorrect notions derived from the era of slavery that black people and white people were biologically different still persist today and are still believed by certain practicing physicians, which is pretty scary,” said Kwon.

Kwon chose this topic because of the many stories she was told as a child from her mother, who works as an OB-GYN nurse in Atlanta, where she grew up. Clair Dahm, Instructor in History and Social Science, served as Kwon’s faculty advisor. Dahm expressed her pride for Kwon throughout this entire process. 

“In terms of how it came to be, I taught Irene in History 201 in the fall of her Lower year, and then that winter she came and asked me if, over a year later, I would be her CAMD advisor. Right away I was like, this is someone who’s deeply passionate about this and who really wants to kind of spend that time,” said Dahm. 

Dahm continued, “I was just so impressed. I think she actually took on [the research] in a strong and also thoughtful way. Because whenever we’re talking about the history of marginalized or oppressed groups, particularly the long institution of slavery and its continued ramifications today, it’s important that there’s sort of a thoughtful development of that to purpose, and essentially in her case, I think impressively to the call to action.”

Kwon encouraged students to always be aware of discrimination in our culture, especially in seemingly objective fields of study like the sciences.

Kwon wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “Before my research project, I never would have thought there was implicit bias and scientific racism that affects the quality of healthcare in our country, and now that I have this knowledge, I need to make sure that first and foremost, I try my best to erase bias in my own life and surroundings so I can hold others to the same standard.”