Vax rates show African Americans’ distrust of healthcare system

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the future health of Michigan residents will largely depend on the percentage of people vaccinated against the virus. Unfortunately, that number remains low among African Americans. In Michigan, only 44% of the African American population received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, among the lowest rates in the country.

The answer to why is multifactorial, but a large part is the general distrust of the health care system on the part of many African Americans – distrust formed over time due to a long history of inequities and bad treatments. We need to become more intentional about making changes, both immediate and long-term, so that African Americans have better experiences in their healthcare journeys and their levels of trust in the system increase.

While COVID vaccination may be the topic of the day, this distrust is impacting African American health care in many ways beyond the virus. For example, African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial/ethnic group in the United States for most cancers. Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease also occur at higher rates among people of color than among whites.

Long-standing systemic inequalities and structural racism disproportionately harm communities of color. Studies show that doctors spend less time with African American patients, and when seen, concerns are more often dismissed or ignored. Communities of color are more likely to live in poverty and in heavily polluted areas, with lower quality education and housing, and fewer health care facilities.

Another area where disparities stand out for African Americans is in maternal health care. In Michigan, African-American women are dying from pregnancy-related causes in 41 of every 100,000 live births, compared to 15 in 100,000 live births among white mothers. African American babies also die at a rate three times higher than white babies. In the county of Kent, African-American infants are 2.5 times more likely to die before 1 year of age than white infants and 2.2 times more likely to have low birth weight. At the root of this problem, studies show that pregnant African American women are often ignored by their doctors when discussing possible complications of their pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the distrust in the healthcare system caused by these and other inequalities will lead to further health disparities in the future, as African Americans will be less protected against COVID.

African Americans today account for 18% of all COVID deaths in Michigan, a disproportionate number to the population, and many more will suffer long-term impacts, especially since COVID is more dangerous for people who have comorbidities such that heart disease, diabetes and obesity, which appear in African Americans have higher rates due to past inequalities.

The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI) United Against Covid campaign works directly with African American communities to promote vaccinations and other preventative health care measures. We have clinics set up all over Kent County in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming, and with the increase in vacations and travel, it is all the more important that people get vaccinated. Many people believe that those who want to get vaccinated have already done so, but we do not accept this to be true and we will continue to provide every opportunity for people to get vaccinated. You can find out more about GRAAHI’s vaccination clinics at https://graahi.com/getvaccinated/

But we can only do so much as one organization. Our elected leaders must prioritize policies that recognize the impact of social determinants on diverse populations and seek to address the key factors that contribute to driving inequality, addressing the problem at its source. Advocacy, community education and research should all be key elements of these efforts.

Finally, the lack of diversity in the medical field is another problem that can be solved. Alone 6.2% nurses and 5% of physicians identify as African American. The role of African American health care providers is critical, as greater diversity within health care teams can play a key role in reducing the level of distrust. At GRAAHI, we work with Michigan universities to improve the pool of African American healthcare professionals in our state, and we also need elected officials to make this a priority.

Although we have made progress, we are dealing with a system that has been broken for centuries. It is time to recognize the magnitude of this problem and come together at community and government levels to break this vicious cycle. With our combined efforts, the future can be much brighter.

Vanessa Greene is CEO of Grand Rapids African American Health Institutean organization dedicated to achieving health care parity for African Americans and ensuring optimal health care for all and the benefit of health systems without race as a barrier.

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