Disparities in Healthcare: Does Everyone Receive the Same Standard of Care?

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Research shows that healthcare is not equal among all demographics and it is evident that throughout time, various groups of people have been taken advantage of by the medical community. In the United States, we believe that health care should not differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or geographic location. When these differences do exist, they are referred to as disparities. We see this when racial and ethnic minorities receive lower quality healthcare than whites, when age is a determinant of quality of care, when level of education or sexual orientation are taken into consideration or when a person is uninsured or must rely on government issued health coverage for care. It is important to understand that differences in people will always exist; it is wrong, however, when these differences lead to unequal care. The existence of inequality in health care represents a failure of the healthcare system to provide equal, high quality care to all individuals. In the past, before the government regulated experimentation on humans and prior to patients’ having to give consent to be involved in studies that could potentially harm them, many doctors and researchers took advantage of these people. The poorest and most illiterate of populations were recruited for experimental medical studies that were invasive, harmful and could result in death. These were the people they believed would not object and would not realize that what was being done to them was wrong. One of the longest running experiments performed on a minority group was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment spanned 40 years; from 1932-1972 and involved 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. The effects of advanced syphilis include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, insanity and eventually, death. These men, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from poor counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they suffered from or the degree of severity of their illness. They were told that they were being treated for “bad blood” when, in actuality there was no intention of treating or curing them at all. The data for the experiment was largely gained from autopsies after the men had succumbed to the disease. In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued an apology to the eight surviving members of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: “The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. It was clearly racist.” When the experiment was brought to the attention of the media in 1972, news anchor Harry Reasoner described it as an experiment that “used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone.” The study meant to show how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites, the theory being that whites experienced more neurological complications from syphilis and blacks were more susceptible to cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge could or would have changed the treatment of syphilis is uncertain. Another notable medical controversy was the harvesting of cancer cells in 1951 from a 30-year-old black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Mrs. Lacks died of cervical cancer and her cells were used for experimentation. It was found that her cells would not die, but reproduced themselves at an alarming rate and today, they are still used and sold for research. They were known as HeLa Cells and were sold to doctors, hospitals, laboratories and government agencies. Her family was never notified that her cells had been harvested or were being sold. A book about Mrs. Lacks, her life and her family was published in 2010; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Mrs. Lacks’ family was portrayed as being concerned about what was being done to their mother’s cells; the male members of her family were incensed to find out that her cells were being sold for $25 per vial, her...
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