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‘Hundreds of years of mistrust from medical society’: Black doctor gives insight on history, provides path forward

Black doctor gives insight on longstanding distrust between African Americans and medical field and says honest conversations is the best way forward
Posted at 7:42 PM, Dec 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-11 20:15:02-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As soon as the COVID-19 vaccine gets the greenlight and they become available in Michigan, Dr. Lisa Lowery said she’ll get one. She encourages her patients and others to get the vaccine too but understands that may take some convincing.

“Let’s start with the simple fact that a lot of people are skeptical of vaccines in general, and vaccines have been around for decades,” Dr. Lowery said during a Zoom interview on Thursday afternoon. “So, I still have problems convincing people to get the flu shot.”

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Dr. Lowery is the section chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Spectrum Health. One of the groups that are most skeptical is her own Black community and it stems from centuries of mistreatment by doctors, she said.

“When we really look at hundreds of years of experimentation, from the experimentation on slaves, like Marion Sims who was actually considered the father of modern gynecology but was doing experimentation on slaves,” Dr. Lowery said. “People were doing experimentation on people of darker-hue skin because they wanted to know the depth of the Blackness.”

Dr. Lowery also talked about the Tuskegee Experiment of 1932when the CDC tested the effects of syphilis on hundreds of Black men, without their knowledge, and in exchange for meals and burials. According to the CDC website, the experiment was only to last six months. However it ended in the early 1970s and no one was given penicilin to treat the disease.

Dr. Lowery also mentioned Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used for research for years, without her consent, and neither she nor her family were compensated. She said occurrences like these led to a longstanding distrust between the Black community and doctors and it also led to misconceptions.

“Being a Black woman going in and saying ‘I have pain’ knowing people will say ‘are you a drug seeker?’ So, there are hundreds of years of mistrust from the medical society. And then when we get to the social constructs, social determinants of health and lack of access, lack of being able to go to a provider that looks like me. So, there are so many confounding factors when we talk about why people of color have such mistrust for the healthcare system.”

As deep as the mistrust is, Dr. Lowery believes the best way forward is by doctors having honest conversations with their Black patients about their fears and concerns. She recommends that if doctors don’t initiate, then patients should.

“I think a lot of patients are afraid to say ‘well if I bring up the conversation to my healthcare provider, they’re going to think that I don’t want to do this or I don’t want to participate or I’m against vaccinations,’” Dr. Lowery said. “But I like to ask my patients ‘well, why?’ You know, 'why do you feel like you don’t need the vaccinations or why don’t you feel like this isn’t for you?'”

She said that question and the subsequent conversation gives her the chance to connect with her patients and get to the root of their concerns. Conversely she recommends patients have patience with their doctors and providers. Doctors don’t know a patient's fears until he or she brings it up.

And many doctors, she said, simply don’t know about the history between the Black community and the medical field.

“It was one of those hidden secrets,” Dr. Lowery said. “We knew it happened. I think more and more people, the younger residents, interns, people going through medical school, they’re more aware. I think older generations, even before me, they’re learning about it. But, we have to have those open conversations with people.”

Dr. Lowery added that another way to bridge the gap is by Black people and other people of color participating in trials. Sometimes those provide the best settings to have those conversations.

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“These are new normals and unprecedented times where we’re having these medical technologies and we are learning at a rapid pace,” Dr Lowery said. “So, allowing your providers the time to learn and giving them grace and things like that, that’s where I would, for [the Black] community and for every community, that's my advice.”

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