Black newborns are three times more likely to die as white newborns. Even though infant mortality rates are down overall in the United States, Black babies still have high rates of infant mortality. And while the reasons for infant mortality vary, no matter what, Black infants are still more likely to die. It could be lack of proper care for pregnant mothers due to socioeconomic status. Maybe where they live, or simply because Black women aren’t taken seriously by their doctors. But there is some research out there that shows a potentially positive change for infant mortality. And it has to do with the race of their doctors.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released numbers on infant mortality, highlighting the disparities Black babies and their mothers face. More than 22,000 babies altogether died before their first birthday in that year. That equates to about 5.79 deaths per 1,000 infant births. However, the infant mortality rate for Black babies was 10.97 infant death per 1,000 births. That’s almost double what the average is, and absolutely more than any other race. And that is incredibly troubling. As of right now, that is the most recent data we have on Black infant mortality.
There are a lot of contributing factors to infant mortality. According to the CDC numbers, Black mothers were 2.3 times more likely than white mothers to receive late or no prenatal care. You can certainly tie that to socioeconomic status. If you don’t have any sort of health insurance, you’re definitely not going to take yourself to a doctor. The most prevalent include low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), birth defects, accidental and non-accidental injuries, and maternal peripartum complications. The CDC stats also state that Black babies are 3.8 times more likely to die from complications in relation to low birth weight than white babies. They also had more than twice the rates of SIDS related deaths.
After going through the records of 1.8 million births at Florida hospitals from 1992 to 2015, Rachel Hardeman, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, along with three other researchers, found something very interesting, according to The Washington Post. When Black newborns have a Black doctor (neonatologists, pediatricians, and family practitioners) their mortality rate compared to white newborns is cut in half. As of right now, they’ve found it’s an association, not a cause and effect situation. They still need more studies to understand if a doctor’s race does in fact have an effect. More research needs to be done to understand why Black doctors outperform white doctors, the researchers note.
“It is the first empirical evidence to describe the impact of the physician’s race on an outcome such as infant mortality,” Hardeman told The Washington Post.
According to their research, Black babies having a Black doctor is most beneficial “during more challenging births and in hospitals that deliver more Black babies.” But Hardeman and her fellow researchers don’t think it’s practical for all Black families to seek out only Black doctors for their babies. Of course, having that access to a Black doctor is hard to come by for most Black families. The Washington Post shares statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges, and they’re pretty bleak. According to the AAMC, only five percent of doctors identify as Black. Additionally, 4.9 percent of pediatricians do. In 2018, Black babies made up 15 percent (579,174) of all births. There aren’t many doctors to go around, and that’s likely more true if you go outside of major cities.
But the team also believes doctors and other medical professionals and establishments need to understand how racism affects care.
“Reducing racial disparities in newborn mortality will also require raising awareness among physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators about the prevalence of racial and ethnic disparities, their effects, furthering diversity initiatives, and revisiting organizational routines in low-performing hospitals,” they wrote.
Racial disparities lead Black babies that leads to them getting subpar care. Most white doctors have not been trained to recognize illnesses that present more prominently in Black folks. Because of their own internalized racism (intentional or not) they may hold certain biases based on things like socioeconomic status. Requiring all non-Black doctors, especially white doctors, to be educated on proper care for Black people could be something that saves babies’ lives. For far too long it’s been easy for doctors who aren’t Black to make little to no effort to understand how systemic racism has a negative impact on the lives of Black patients. Babies don’t stand a chance if the medical professionals who should be keeping them alive are giving them the bare minimum care.
That’s why Hardeman and her fellow researchers felt it was imperative to share this research. Even though there’s still more to conduct, this is more than enough to start a conversation. And maybe now there’s even more evidence to back up the need for more Black doctors. They’re continuing a long-standing conversation that won’t end anytime soon. And it’s important to keep shedding light on these issues.
“We hope this study provides a basis for additional work that advances our understanding of inequality, its origins and how practitioners can work toward creating better and more-equitable birth outcomes,” they told The Washington Post.
Black babies are in critical need of help. If more researchers and medical professionals don’t begin to take their care seriously, we’re going to see even higher infant mortality rates. This isn’t a problem that will magically solve itself. Doctors and others need to step up and do the work that will save these babies.