A photo of UMD SPH Professor Dr. Stephen Thomas

Dr. Stephen Thomas

October 2, 2019

University of Maryland School of Public Health Professor Dr. Stephen Thomas recently published an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health highlighting the pervasive and lasting influence of racism in the fields of medicine and public health. Erica Casper co-authored the editorial. 

The first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States 400 years ago (The New York Times published several articles recognizing this anniversary titled The 1619 Project and the October issue of AJPH focuses on this). Based on racist rhetoric that Black people are “less than” human or even “medically different from whites and so in need of special treatment,” Black bodies were frequently used by White doctors for dissection, surgery and bedside demonstrations.

It is then, Dr. Thomas contends, that Black people began to distrust and fear medicine. This fear, compounded with unequal care stemming from the dehumanization of Black people, led to health disparities which persist today. Evidence has shown that racial and ethnic minorities have lower life expectancies and suffer more from numerous health conditions than White individuals in the U.S.

Other studies found minorities were less likely to “be given appropriate cardiac medications or to undergo bypass surgery, and were less likely to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, compared with their White counterparts.”

In contrast to today’s evidence is scant information collected relating to Black people’s health during enslavement. In fact, Dr. Thomas points out, the first systematic study of excess death among Black and minority groups compared to Whites was not conducted until the Heckler Report in 1985.

But despite the plethora of evidence that one’s race impacts the level of care received today, a nationally representative survey of physicians from 2010 revealed that the majority of physicians do not view a patient’s race or ethnicity as a factor in obtaining care.

While there have been improvements in some health disparities, studies report that overall progress is slow. Dr. Thomas underlines the importance of eliminating health disparities by stating that “as racial and ethnic populations continue to grow toward becoming the numerical majority, their health and well-being will become the health baseline status for the nation.”

With this paper, Dr. Thomas hopes to “bring to the foreground a history that, because of the magnitude of its shame, has been too often ignored in discourse about the pervasive influence of racism in the fields of medicine and public health.”

Dr. Thomas’ research endeavors to expose and eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities. He is also the director of the School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity, which similarly seeks to achieve health equity by eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities.

Related Links

Dr. Thomas' editorial: "The Burdens of Race and History on Black People’s Health 400 Years After Jamestown"

October Issue of AJPH: Four Hundred Years Since Jamestown

Center for Health Equity

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Stephen B. Thomas