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Health Equity

Health care in the making (Part I): Black History

13 February, 2024
Produced by:
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Optum Medical Care, P.C.
Health care in the making (Part I): Black History

Health care is always changing. And we have the devoted medical professionals of the past to thank for that. Among those are Black health care professionals. Health care wouldn’t be the same without their dedication, sacrifice and contributions. But, despite their contributions, health disparities still exist.

Let’s take a journey into the origins of health care to learn about some of the meaningful achievements of Black medical pioneers. We’ll shed light on the health care gap and its impact on Black communities, and how together, we can create a promising future of health equity. And we will explore the rich history of health care in the making: Black History.

The beginnings of medicine

In early history, medical healers used natural sources and practices to heal and care for the sick.[1] And as society grew, medicine advanced with the help of medical pioneers. As we celebrate Black history, we show our respect for the Black health care professionals who have shaped medicine and health care into what we know today. Their research, efforts, and inventions have led to better life-saving patient care.[2]

Charles Richard Drew, MD

One of history’s most well-known Black physicians is Charles Drew, MD. Dr. Drew, a surgeon, is known as the “Father of the Blood Bank.” His ground-breaking work in storing and transferring blood revolutionized medicine. During World War II, he developed a long-term method for storing plasma (made up of white and red blood cells and platelets).[3],[4] After the war, Dr. Drew continued with his research and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States.3

Did you know? Nearly 16 million blood components are transfused each year in the U.S, which is why having the ability to store more blood for long periods is important.5

Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin was an inventor and engineer who made significant contributions to the development of the pacemaker.[5] He improved the pacemaker’s design, allowing the pulse rate to be changed without the need for surgery. [6]

Did you know? Biventricular pacemakers, which help your heart chambers beat at a normal rhythm, can now be used “to deliver a larger shock when a deadly fast heart rate occurs.” [7]

Daniel Hale Williams, MD

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a cardiologist, was the first Black health care professional to perform a successful open-heart surgery.[8] He repaired a tear in the sac surrounding the heart and a severed artery.[9] Dr. Williams was a tireless advocate for equal access to health care for Black people and helped to establish the National Medical Association, the nation’s largest and oldest organization representing Black physicians.[9] He also founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation’s first Black-owned hospital and one which provided an opportunity for Black health care providers to train and practice medicine.[9]

Did you know? Nearly 2 million people around the world have open heart surgery every year. [10]

Marilyn Hughes Gaston

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston is a Black pediatrician who has made significant contributions to sickle cell anemia research.[11],[12] Sickle cell anemia, the most severe form of sickle cell disease, is a genetic disease that affects the hemoglobin in red blood cells, causing them to become stiff and sickle shaped.[13] Dr. Hughes’ research has led to a nationwide sickle cell disease screening program for newborns..[11]

Did you know? Sickle cell disease occurs among about 1 out of every 365 Black of African American births. [14]

Patricia Bath, MD

Dr. Patricia Bath is an ophthalmologist who invented laserphaco, a technique for removing cataracts.[15] This technique is now used globally in cataract surgery.[15] Dr. Bath also founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization dedicated to preventing the loss of sight.[16]

Did you know? Around 20.5 million Americans have a cataract in at least one eye.[17]

Health disparities today

Although health care has grown, differences in health results still exist. Certain communities have higher rates of poor health due to social factors.[18]  These include income, education, health care, daily life and social/community support.[18] People who don’t have grocery stores with healthy food choices are likely to have long-lasting illnesses and shorter lives.[18]

Racism in healthcare makes differences in health outcomes worse.[19] Black Americans have shorter lives than white Americans.[19]The COVID-19 pandemic has made these differences even more obvious. COVID has more severely affected people of color in part because they often have fewer resources.[20]

The future of health equity

The future looks promising, with recent technologies and approaches that have the potential to improve access to care and reduce health disparities. There are ways we as a community can continue to move health care forward proactively:

  • Telemedicine and virtual health care services make it easier for people to see a doctor, with the added benefit of helping slow the spread of infections.[21]
  • Electronic health records (EHRs) help doctors and patients track their medical history and share information easily, reducing duplicative records and errors.[22]
  • Collaborative research between health care professionals, stakeholders and community representatives helps ensure health care is meeting the needs of the community.
  • Increasing diversity in the health care workforce helps to build trust and rapport between patients and providers.[23]
  • Addressing social determinants of health, such as poverty, housing and education helps to improve overall health and well-being.[18]

By working together, we can create a future where everyone has access to quality health care, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

Talk with one of our specialists or read about more health topics on the Better Health Blog to embark on your path to optimal health.

[1] American Medical Association. Traditional medicine has a long history of contributing to conventional medicine and continues to hold promise. August 10, 2023.

[2] Association for American Medical Colleges. Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers. February 25, 2019.

[3] American Chemistry Society. Charles Richard Drew. February 5, 2024.

[4]NIH – National Library of Medicine. Physiology, Blood Plasma. April 24, 2023.

[5] American Physical Society. Black History Month: Otis Boykin and the Cold War-Era Resistor. February 2022.

[6] Texas State Historical Association. Boykin, Otis Frank (1920–1982). March 24, 2021.

[7] NIH – MedlinePlus. Heart pacemaker. October 5, 2022.

[8] American Heart Association. #BlackCardioInHistory: Daniel Hale Williams – Pioneer in open-heart surgery in the United States. October 22, 2020.

[9] American Heart Association. The legacy of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a heart surgery pioneer. February 16, 2022.

[10] NIH – National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Is Heart Surgery? June 01, 2022

[11] NIH – Library of Medicine. Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston. June 3, 2015.

[12] Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. Women’s History Month: Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston. March 29, 2023.

[13] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Sickle Cell Disease? July 6, 2023

[14] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics on Sickle Cell Disease. July 6, 2023.

[15] American Chemistry Society. Patricia E. Bath (1942–2019). February 5, 2024.

[16] United States Patent and Trademark Office. Sights on the prize. February 5, 2024.

[17]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Eye Disorders and Diseases. August 23, 2023.

[18] Health.gov. Social Determinants of Health. February 5, 2024.

[19] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Impact of Racism on our Nation’s Health. August 16, 2023

[20] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Underlying Medical Conditions Associated with Higher Risk for Severe COVID-19: Information for Healthcare Professionals. February 9, 2023.

[21] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Telemedicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2021. October 12, 2022

[22] U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Electronic Health Records. September 6, 2023.

[23] American Medical Association. AMA adopts new policy to increase diversity in physician workforce. June 17, 2021.