September 30, 2023

Older African Americans Experience Discrimination From Healthcare Providers

By: Jennifer Magdalene

One in four older Black Americans have felt discriminated against by doctors and healthcare professionals who’ve either treated them unfairly or ignored their concerns, a new Commonwealth Fund report reveals. Moreover, people who’ve experienced healthcare-related discrimination are also more likely to be in poor health and/or experience financial difficulty. “The consequences of health care discrimination against older adults of color are serious”, said Michelle M. Doty, lead study author. “People are not getting the care they need, their concerns are being ignored, and their health is suffering as a result”.

Main findings

25% of Black adults aged 60+ say they’ve been treated unfairly or their health concerns were dismissed because of their racial or ethnic background. In comparison, just 3% of older white adults report feeling the same. Almost 50% of those who’ve experienced such discrimination say they’re in either fair or poor health — double the rate of those who haven’t experienced discrimination (75% of adults who’ve been discriminated against have three or more chronic conditions). Moreover, over 4 in 10 people who’ve experienced discrimination are either somewhat or not satisfied with the quality of their healthcare (around double the rate of those who didn’t report discrimination). 49% of Black women and 40% of Black men also believe the healthcare system discriminates based on race and ethnicity (more than any other demographic).

Racial disparities in oral health

Racial disparities also exist in oral health. Black Americans are more likely than whites to have untreated tooth decay, while older Black adults are also more likely to be unable to afford preventative oral healthcare. In turn, untreated tooth decay commonly leads to oral health issues like cavities or soft teeth. Soft teeth, in particular, are caused by weakened enamel and only usually affects a small number of people. A healthy low-sugar diet and regular teeth brushing is essential for preventing soft teeth and cavities.

Working to end discrimination

The report’s authors encourage healthcare organizations to act to eliminate widespread discrimination and improve health equity for all patients. “Biases against older people of color are experienced throughout the health care system, and they need to be intentionally rooted out. Health care organizations must be accountable for treating all patients equitably. Policies and practices can help ensure this accountability,” Zephyrin explains. In particular, the report recommends: promoting racial and ethnic diversity throughout the health system’s workforce, teaching medical students the history of racism in the healthcare system, and providing translation services and medical forms in multiple languages.

“As a society, we can work to end discrimination in the health system, first by recognizing discrimination and then actively working to dismantle it”, said Doty. To this end, the report also recommends actively identifying discrimination and publicly reporting discrimination data. “Older adults of color, particularly those with health concerns, have many interactions with health personnel. Allowing them opportunities to reflect on how they were treated and to report their experiences with discrimination are important steps”


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