“A lot of us feel like we’re just being experimented on — like we’re guinea pigs.”
She was not the first Black person to express this sentiment to me, and she wouldn’t be the last. It was 2017, and I was just about to start my intern year at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I was shopping for an apartment on the island and told the leasing agent I needed something as close to the hospital as possible.
She asked about work and we started chatting about my future plans to be a public health physician that focuses on promoting health equity — the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to be as healthy as possible regardless of their race or ethnicity. My work at that time focused mostly on Black patients but has since broadened to include Hispanic and Latino and LGBTQ-plus patients.
It was perhaps because of this acknowledgment that there’s a difference in the health outcomes experienced by Black patients that she felt comfortable enough confiding her suspicions to me.
I think of her now after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. While many are waiting with bated breath and one sleeve rolled up, I understand the hesitation some people may have when it comes to getting a newly developed vaccine.
Unfortunately, the memory of medical experimentation on people of color isn’t so distant for many families, especially Black and Hispanic or Latino families, who may have grandparents that lived through inhumane practices like the forced sterilization of Mexican-American women in California as part of the eugenics movement and the abominable treatment of Black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
There’s an ugly past that doctors and the public health community must reckon with when attempting to rebuild trust in communities that were so severely wronged.
A barrier to building that trust is the persistent inequities these groups still face, as evidenced by the disparity in maternal mortality rates between Black and white women, rates of referral for cancer screenings and other preventive care offered to Black and Hispanic or Latino patients, and many other measurable differences in the medical treatment and health outcomes for people of color. This too must be understood and acknowledged as we approach COVID-19 vaccine distribution and communications campaigns.
Being dismissive of fears, hesitancy or skepticism in these communities ignores our shared history and prevents thoughtful, engaging communication that’s mutually respectful, effective and ultimately lifesaving. The medical community should prepare themselves to answer questions patients of color may have before the time comes by first educating themselves on medicine’s shameful past and validating the concerns of people who have too many times been abused, ignored or belittled.
Despite all the work that needs to be done, I’m hopeful that sensitive, informed dialog between patients and clinicians is possible. To achieve this, we must prepare for and engage in these conversations now to ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations.