Health according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Irrespective of your socio-economic status, your wealth and your ability to live ‘richly’ is often directly or indirectly proportional to your health. The phrase “Health is Wealth” became prominent among my peers when someone cited an American philosopher, Ralph Emerson. Some others (for example, people who studied Latin) have attributed the origin to Virgil, a prominent ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period who phrased it as “Wealth is Health”. Regardless of the origins, the meanings have often been polarised, but from the dawn of the 19th century, it has become increasingly evident that the message really prioritises health over ‘material wealth’. Given modern day’s busy life schedules, covering work, education, social activities and even childcare, it has become increasingly difficult to remember to focus on, and prioritise our health. This is further exacerbated by the advances in technology and infrastructure, meaning that we are less mobile and find it hard to ‘switch-off’ and by that very fact, less physically active and prone to prolonged stress triggers than our ancestors. Voraciously contextualised, your health truly is your wealth.
Health is not limited to that of physical health. Mental health and well-being are also central in our health. Mental health particularly affects many people in the black community yet, it hardly gets mentioned in conversations. It would be great to see an in-depth research paper that delves into the true reasons behind this, but factors such as stigma, lack of availability or unawareness of mental health resources and educational materials, as well as poor public health infrastructure can be attributed to various mental health crises faced within the black community today.
Black health is an important topic to bring into the forum for a candid discourse globally. It has been severely overlooked for many years, and the consequences of this neglect has left deeply rooted, negative impacts on generations of black people – a wound further exacerbated by advances in science and health technologies to the detriment of black people at various points in recorded history (even up to the last century). Historical evidence suggests that the health of black people has rarely been the western society’s priority. This is one of the reasons why some black people (even the younger generation) find it hard to prioritise their health and well-being. A lot of us sweep most medical issues under the rug, because society and the way we have been nurtured taught us to do so. We are taught that our medical issues are seemingly irrelevant or exaggerated, and can be cured with a “quick fix” or left alone “to heal itself”. It is no coincidence that black and ethnically diverse groups have the highest mortality rates during child-birth (see BBC News Article of 2021, and MBRRACE-UK Open Access review article of 2022). The discourse should focus on public health policies and how issues such as these and mental health can be addressed in an equitable and inclusive way.
Today, as we strive towards not only reducing inequalities but fighting for equity across various sectors, the topic of healthcare disparities, medical racism, and medical neglect has been put in the spotlight more than ever before. Since more black people are entering the world of medicine, research and development, diagnostic device manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals, there has been an increase in the noticeable gaps and flaws in this seemingly “inclusive” system. I have noticed such flaws!, examples of which include visiting a doctor who doesn’t understand what’s wrong with you, because they were never taught in medical school how to identify certain conditions when applied to black people; awareness of how some health professionals underplay your symptoms of pain, because they believe black people have a higher threshold of pain and therefore “what you are experiencing is ‘mild’ and shouldn’t be that bad”; acute awareness of what it is like to have someone not understand you, because the information about your skin colour is missing from their encyclopaedia of knowledge – the list goes on!
While strides have been made towards providing equal access to healthcare services, there is still a lot to be done in terms of equity. The access we have to the ‘same’ types of services pales in comparison, and does not mean that we are provided the same standard of care as our white counterparts. Racial bias is something that has contributed greatly to higher mortality rates in black people in certain diseases/conditions. In the UK for instance, 64% of black British people, believe that the NHS does less to protect their health (Guardian article and the Health Business article both from 2020).
Using the US as another example, there is a 52.8% survival rate for black patients with regional stage melanoma, compared to 63.8% for their white counterpart (see Centre for Disease Control report of 2019). Include additional factors such as inaccurate testing, lab diagnostics and subsequent medical diagnoses, the battle to build trust in healthcare systems and achieve equity in standards of care is far from over. The NHS has agreed that more has to be done to ensure that all ethnic backgrounds receive the same level of care. The duty of the healthcare system is to provide care without discrimination. Therefore, every system should be functional without discrimination or bias.
An important key in tackling a host of the healthcare disparities is simply through representation. Representation not only creates an equal and safe space for black people in healthcare, it more importantly raises the platform to create awareness, increase the profile of public health services and fight to dispel misinformation and miscommunication. Medical illustrations that represent minorities, can help to improve diagnostics for patients with different shades of black and brown skin. The blessing of having more young people in the field of medicine or healthcare means that they are fighting for inclusivity in diagnostic tools on our behalf. Medical illustrators, physicians and diagnosticians of diverse origin are pushing for better standards in education that will minimise some of the health disparities faced particularly in the western society. I sincerely look forward to the not-so-distant future where patients are not misdiagnosed simply due to the colour of their skin.
Irrespective of gaps in healthcare standards, I believe that black communities should be empowered to take better accountability for their health. De-stigmatising talking about mental health and well-being or ensuring that young people are not sucked into the vortex of ‘society’s impression of a “strong black person”’ is a minor step, but one that moves us in the direction of achieving health equity. Taking care of our health is a compulsory facet of our existence and our being. While this is not a ‘one size fits all approach’, it is important that we as black people learn to prioritise our health, have the necessary and often difficult conversations around health-related issues and outcomes and be comfortable raising awareness and debunking myths related to general health and well-being. A non-exhaustive list of important points to consider in prioritising one’s health include:
Having regular check-ups
Getting a second opinion where the need arises
Eating a balanced, healthy diet often (meal-prepping can be of great benefit!)
Engaging in physical activities daily – a quick walk with friends, a trip to the gym, a run on your way home from the shops, etc., or playing sports are all great ways to engage, and exercise the mind and the body
TALK!!! Seek guidance and counselling when it is needed, find someone who will listen in a ‘judgement-free’ space and share your misgivings and other things weighing you down. Talk about access to novel therapies and have candid conversations on health technologies and how these can be of benefit. Did you know that patients can influence the design of many novel technologies including medicines, medical devices, exercise equipment, etc.? Talk, and use your power to make a difference in the present and for the future generation of black kids.
I cannot reiterate how important it is to cherish and look after your health because it cannot be replaced. Consistently treat your body well, and you’ll find that being at your healthiest is when you can aim to be your happiest. Health is truly your wealth, and you should treat it as such.
About the Author
Sophie is a Bioprocess Technician at Pfizer with a BSc in Chemical & Pharmaceutical Science. She enjoys reading and has a love for writing. With her personal blog “The Sophiesticated Blog”, she loves to write stories and poems in her free time.