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Black Infants Are Three Times More Likely to Die When Their Doctor is White

Racism in medicine and health remains an ongoing threat to the lives of Black parents and their children. In New York City, Black women are 12 times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than their non-Black peers and are significantly more likely to have traumatic births. Black children and teens are at an increased risk of having severe and dangerous mental health issues go unaddressed (and to be harmed by police violence).

This historic gap in care, unsurprisingly, affects even the most vulnerable, as a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) confirmed: Black newborns are three times more like to die than white babies — and that they’re more likely to die when in the care of white doctors.

Looking at data from 1.8 million hospital births between 1992 and 2015 in Florida, researchers found:

  • Black newborns cared for by Black physicians (as opposed to white physicians) have a third-lower rate of in-hospital deaths.
  • The effects manifest more strongly in more complicated cases and when hospitals deliver more Black newborns.
  • The size of this mortality rate reduction would correspond to preventing the in-hospital deaths of about 1,400 Black newborns nationally each year.
While the disparities in infant mortality rates between races was known, this study is particularly telling in how the care factors into those previously understood numbers.
“Findings suggest that when Black newborns are cared for by Black physicians, the mortality penalty they suffer, as compared with White infants, is halved,” researchers wrote. “Strikingly, these effects appear to manifest more strongly in more complicated cases, and when hospitals deliver more Black newborns. No such concordance effect is found among birthing mothers.”
Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and the Blue Cross Endowed Professor in Health and Racial Equity at University of Minnesota and co-author of the study Rachel Hardem said in a statement that the findings “demonstrate that when newborns and the physicians treating them are of the same race, that newborn survival rate is significantly improved.” She adds that it’s an important part of the conversation about the effect of “physician-patient racial concordance on the Black-white mortality gap.”

“As we seek to close persistent racial gaps in birth outcomes, this finding is incredibly important,” Hardem said.

Aaron Sojourner, associate professor in the University’s Carlson School of Management adds that these outcomes show that there needs to be “greater investigation by researchers and medical practitioners into drivers of differences between higher- and lower-performing physicians, and why Black physicians systemically outperform their colleagues when caring for Black newborns.”

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