Cold Iron Truth

Bigotry and medical injustice


“We cannot teach people to withhold judgment; judgments are embedded in the way we view objects. I do not see a “tree”; I see a pleasant or an ugly tree. It is not possible without great, paralyzing effort to strip these small values we attach to matters. Likewise, it is not possible to hold a situation in one’s head without some element of bias” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, MBA, PhD, “The Black Swan.”

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

Each morning I see the hungry ghosts congregate at the end of the alley behind my office waiting for their addiction clinic appointments (Maté G. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction” Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2008). The fast food restaurant and the convenience store won’t let them linger, so there they sit on the curb in the saddest magpie’s row in the world. They have lip, nose, and eyebrow piercings, and lightning bolts tattooed up their cheeks. They all have backpacks, a few even rolling suitcases. They are opioid addicts, and almost all young, White adults. There they sit, once-innocent young girls, now worn and hardened, and vicious-looking young men, all with downcast empty eyes and miserable expressions. They are a frightening group marginalized by their addiction.

Opioid addiction became a national focus of attention with clarion calls for treatment, which resulted in legislative funding for treatment, restrictions on prescribing, and readily available Narcan. Physicians have greatly reduced their prescribing of narcotics and overdose death rates have dropped, but the drug crisis has not gone away, it has only been recently overshadowed by COVID-19.

The most ironic part of the current opioid epidemic and overdose deaths, and the other three bloodborne horsemen of death – endocarditis; hepatitis B, C, and D; and HIV – was that these scourges were affecting the Black community 40 years ago when, in my view, no one seemed to care. There was no addiction counseling, no treatment centers, and law enforcement would visit only with hopes of making a dealer’s arrest. Not until it became a White suburban issue, did this public health problem become recognized as something to act on. This is of course a result of racism, but there is a broader lesson here.

Humans may be naturally bigoted toward any marginalized or minority group. I recall working in the HIV clinic (before it was called HIV) in Dallas in the mid-1980s. The county refused to pay for zidovudine, which was very expensive at the time, and was sued to supply medication for a group marginalized by their sexual orientation. The AIDS epidemic was initially ignored, with the virus spreading to intravenous drug users and eventually to the broader population, which is when effective treatments became a priority.

Physicians and society should pay close attention to the ills of our marginalized communities. Because of isolation from health care, they are the medical canaries in the coal mine for all of us. Medical issues and infectious diseases identified there should be a priority and solutions sought and applied. This not only would benefit the marginalized group and ease their suffering, but would be salutary to society as a whole, because they surely will be coming everyone’s way.

COVID-19 highlights this. The working poor live in close quarters and most rely on crowded public transportation, and so a respiratory illness spreads rapidly in a population that cannot practically physically distance and probably cannot afford face masks, or alcohol hand gel.

As noted above, we have a persistent illegal drug epidemic. We also have a resurgence in venereal disease and tuberculosis, much of it drug resistant, which again is concentrated in our marginalized populations. Meanwhile, we have been cutting spending on public health, while we obviously need more resources devoted to public and community health.

When we step back and look, there are public health issues everywhere. We could eliminate 90% of cervical cancer and most of the oropharyngeal cancer with use of a very effective vaccine, but we struggle to get it paid for and to convince the public of its ultimate good.

Another example is in Ohio, where we raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21, which is laudable. But children of any age can still access tanning beds, which dramatically raises their lifetime risk of melanoma, often using a note from their “parents” that they write for each other on the car hood in the strip mall parking lot. This group of mostly young white women could also be considered a marginalized group despite their disposable income because of their belief in personal invincibility and false impressions of a tan conferring beauty and vitality repeated endlessly in their echo chamber of social media impressions.

Perhaps we should gauge the state of our public health by the health status of the most oppressed group of all, the incarcerated. Is it really possible that we don’t routinely test for and treat hepatitis C in many of our prisons? Is this indifference because the incarcerated are again a largely minority group and hepatitis C is spread by intravenous drug use?

Solutions and interventions for these problems range widely in cost, but all would eventually save the greater society money and alleviate great misery for those affected.

Perhaps we should be talking about the decriminalization of drug use. The drugs are already here and the consequences apparent, including overflowing prisons and out of control gun violence. This is a much thornier discussion, but seems at the root of many of our problems.

Bigotry is insidious and will take a long and continuing active effort to combat. As Dr. Taleb notes in the introductory quote, it requires a constant, tiring, deliberate mental effort to be mindful of one’s biases. As physicians, we have always been careful to try and treat all patients without bias, but this is not enough. We must become more insistent about the funding and application of public health measures.

Recognizing and treating the medical problems of our marginalized populations seems a doable first step while our greater society struggles with mental bias toward marginalized groups. Reducing the health burdens of these groups can only help them in their life struggles and will benefit all.

Someone once told me that the cold wind in the ghetto eventually blows out into the suburbs, and they were right. As physicians and a society, we should be insistent about correcting medical injustices beforehand. Let’s get started.

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Write to him at [email protected]

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