Dying while black: Perpetual gaps exist in health care for African-Americans

Several years ago, MapQuest directed me on a 10-hour drive to visit my father in a Florida hospital. Complications from diabetes, including blindness, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, and a below-the-knee amputation, had taken their toll. This time my father, 69, was hospitalized for an infection of unknown origin that physicians could not name, despite their many attempts to grow cultures.

I did not know it at the time, but my father was dying.

Once I arrived at the hospital from Durham, North Carolina, I could hear his screams from the nurses’ station. “Never mind. I hear him,” I told the nurse whom I had just asked the location of my father’s room. “I’ll follow the sounds.”

That any patient would be left in so much pain that his screams could be heard down the hall was unacceptable to me. That this patient was my father, a man I had always known as a big, strong former football player – the kind of man other men didn’t dare cross (but who was also loving and gentle) – was difficult for me to process. Yet, here I was, being guided to his hospital room by the sound of his cries. Despite being a trained philosopher with an interest in bioethics, I had not yet begun to think about the ways in which racialized health disparities manifest even at the end of life. My father’s excruciatingly painful process of dying was but one example.

The author with her father, John Wesley Wilson, on Easter Sunday, 1977. Yolonda Wilson, CC BY-SA

Gaps while living, gaps while dying

It is well documented that African-Americans experience excess mortality, or deaths beyond the expected mortality rate. However, even if disparities in the mortality rate for African-Americans were rectified tomorrow, the fact remains that we will all eventually die. And how we die matters.

According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 72 percent of American adults have given at least some thought to their end of life wishes, with 37 percent of American adults having given their end of life wishes a “great deal of thought.” Some of these wishes include decisions about pain management, maintaining quality of life, and whether to continue aggressive medical treatment for terminal illness.

Additionally, research shows that people tasked with making treatment decisions for loved ones who cannot express their own wishes sometimes experience distress about watching their loved one suffer. Even months or years later, they wonder whether they made the “right” decision.

Pain ignored

Black patients generally receive worse pain management in primary care environments and emergency rooms. Even black children are not treated for their pain to the extent that white children are. Some attribute this to false beliefs about biological differences between black and white patients, including the belief that black people have “thicker skin” and, therefore, do not experience as much pain as whites. These false beliefs lead to inaccurate pain assessments by physicians evaluating black patients and an unwillingness to take the pain complaints of black patients as seriously.