How Tuskegee experiment puts extra burden on black physicians during pandemic

In their fight alongside their medical peers against the coronavirus, black physicians face the additional burden of broad mistrust of the federal government in many black communities, NBC News reports.

And Pierre Vigilance, MD, a former health commissioner for the District of Columbia, believes he can point to that moment in U.S. history that's "the root" of that African American mistrust — the infamous 40-year Tuskegee experiment.

The Tuskegee study aimed to study syphilis and justify treatment programs for African Americans. It involved black men, some with syphilis and some without. But the study was conducted without the participants’ informed consent, according to the CDC. They were given free medical exams and free meals, but did not receive the treatment needed to cure the illness. The study continued for 40 years, until 1972 when an advisory panel reviewed the study and found the men had been misled and had not been not told of the study’s purpose or aim.

"Some are well aware and know that history," Dr. Vigilance told NBC News. "But many triggers of distrust are being replaced by family history, like, 'Uncle Johnny was fine, but he went to the doctor and everything went downhill.'

"That may be how it appeared, or how it was, but there were a number of things that Uncle Johnny had against him that had nothing to do with the history. But that's the belief," said Dr. Vigilance, "and it's as much a part of it as medical and public health maleficence."

Thus, it is challenging for black physicians to help their communities trust the instructions and services pushed by the government during the current pandemic, according to the report.

For black physicians, "there absolutely is an added responsibility on us to bring assurances to our communities, to advocate for our communities," Rueben C. Warren, DrPH, director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University, told NBC News.

More articles on integration and physician issues:
Nearly half of surveyed primary care practices say they don't have capacity for COVID-19 testing
Physicians take drastic measures to protect families from coronavirus
Primary care recruitment: How 3 organizations are moving the needle

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