New Course Examines Racial Discrimination in Healthcare

For healthcare professionals, the vow of “do no harm” is a guiding principle. But research and medical treatment for communities of color has sometimes been anything but harmless, afflicted with issues of informed consent, bias, and unethical practices. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Tuskegee Syphilis Project included nearly 400 Black men with the disease who were never treated, so researchers could study the course of the disease. The “immortal” cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, taken without her consent, have been studied for decades. And racial inequalities in healthcare access and outcomes, including infant and maternal health, continue today.

Disparities such as this will be covered in a new undergraduate course launching in spring 2022: Analyzing Bias and Discrimination in Medicine, Health, and Science. A collaboration between Sargent and BU College of Arts & Sciences, it will help students recognize discrimination, understand systemic patterns of oppression, and reflect on their implicit biases so they can effectively advocate for social change.

“There is an immense amount of systemic racism embedded in health sciences,” says Shannon Peters, a health sciences lecturer at Sargent who codeveloped the course. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show health inequities among communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased risks of hospitalization and death, and more barriers to testing. These disparities are not new. Life expectancy among Black people and Native Americans is four years less than that of white people; disparities in teen birth rates, infant mortality, and HIV/AIDS diagnosis and death rates are particularly significant for Black, Latinx, and Native American people.

Cotaught by professors in health science, human physiology, and biology, the new course will cover biases in medicine, healthcare, and research. Faculty will also encourage students to examine their own beliefs and behaviors. “When we talk about racism, we tend to intellectualize and that distances us from the actual content,” says Peters, one of three course instructors. “We want to break that cycle.” That means many assignments will focus on individual storytelling, with students asked to share video diaries reflecting on and analyzing topics such as their awareness of social identities or media coverage of events affecting communities of color.

The course is part of both Sargent’s and the University’s ongoing focus on fostering an inclusive culture through hiring and recruitment efforts, dedicated resources, and regular events hosted in partnership with student groups such as Diverse-OT and the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground. And it begins at a pivotal time, as the nation grapples with a confluence of race reckonings and BU students call for more antiracist programming.

“I have a lot of hope,” says Peters, who believes the class will provide students with actionable steps to combat racism and oppression. “They are really excited about entering the health professions and want to be making these changes and developing these antiracist skills.”