Harvard History of Science professor Evelynn M. Hammonds and University of Colorado Boulder law professor Craig Konnoth discussed ways to confront racism in medicine and disparities in the delivery of health care during a virtual panel Friday.
The conversation — moderated by Michelle Morse, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School — was part of the Health Policy and Bioethics Consortia, a monthly series organized by the Medical School and the Law School that brings together experts from separate disciplines to discuss issues relating to biomedical innovation and healthcare delivery.
Konnoth and Hammonds spoke about the historical development of medical stereotypes that impact the health outcomes of Black individuals today.
Konnoth cited a belief held during the era of slavery in the United States that Black individuals are inferior to their white counterparts — a medical myth he argued continues to harm Black people today.
He connected this myth to current misconceptions that Black individuals have higher pain tolerance and greater resistance to certain contagions compared to white individuals. In an interview, Konnoth said that while advances in medicine — especially during the pandemic — should be lauded, its historical harm to Black people should be acknowledged.
“While medicine is seen as something that is important, especially during these times of Covid for people to live good lives, it’s important to understand the injustice that had been created in the past to ensure that there is equity moving forward,” he said.
Hammonds also said the socially-constructed idea that Black people are anatomically and psychologically different was widely utilized by white physicians in the 19th century to differentiate Black individuals from their white counterparts. She described how this racist ideology became “sedimented in medical theory and practice,” leaving harmful remnants within current healthcare systems.
Konnoth and Hammonds also put forth ways to combat racism in medicine. To that end, Konnoth noted the importance of integrating medicine and law.
“We want to use medicine to leverage legal solutions,” he said during the panel.
Konnoth also said that health professionals should aim to “transform” the perspective of race within medicine instead of completely eliminating the topic from conversation.
“I think that one thing that can be done is to try and shift the pathology from race to racism,” Konnoth said.
Hammonds said during the event that it is important to investigate “where the harm occurs, how the harm is manifest.”
She said medical experts should interrogate widely used practices and deeply held beliefs about differences among races.
To combat racism in medicine, Morse said Harvard should listen to and engage with members of marginalized groups outside of the ivory tower.
“I think what we need to be doing more of is, you know, not just having discussions within our institutions, but really following the lead of the most marginalized communities and community organizers in those communities,” Morse said in an interview.