Racism as a social problem in health care is not always obvious. Sometimes the impact of racism be diffuse, but still a tangible factor in poor health. Bustle.com has an interesting article on how racism can contribute to chronic illness. It’s worth a read:
We know that racism can negatively impact many different areas of a person’s life — including physical health. A recent study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology also shows that racist experiences increase Black peoples’ risk for chronic illness, including heart disease and cancer. The study illustrates how prolonged, repeated exposure to racism can increase levels of inflammation for Black people, which puts them at risk for a host of health problems.
You may be wondering exactly what “inflammation” means in this instance, and how it’s related to racism. Well, as the study points out, for living things — animals, bacteria, humans, etc. — to survive they must have the capability to respond to external sources of distress, including infections, injuries, and situational anxiety. When those threats appear, it sets off an immune system response that acts as a defense mechanism. The resulting chemical process of inflammation means that the immune system is trying to repair what has been damaged.
Inflammation can be good for us. But if a person’s immune system is threatened for a sustained period of time, that inflammation will negatively impact their health. Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-authored the study, said in a press release that “If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer.”
This is partly why Black people, who can experience or be exposed to countless instances of racism over the course of their lives, are at increased risk for serious health problems. Along with cancer, heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of death for Black people.