The Black Mortality Gap, and a Document Written in 1910

Important history:

Black Americans die at higher rates than white Americans at nearly every age.

In 2019, the most recent year with available mortality data, there were about 62,000 such earlier deaths — or one out of every five African American deaths.

The age group most affected by the inequality was infants. Black babies were more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday.

The overall mortality disparity has existed for centuries. Racism drives some of the key social determinants of health, like lower levels of income and generational wealth; less access to healthy food, water and public spaces; environmental damage; overpolicing and disproportionate incarceration; and the stresses of prolonged discrimination.

But the health care system also plays a part in this disparity.

Research shows Black Americans receive less and lower-quality care for conditions like cancer, heart problems, pneumonia, pain management, prenatal and maternal health, and overall preventive health. During the pandemic, this racial longevity gap seemed to grow again after narrowing in recent years.

Some clues to why health care is failing African Americans can be found in a document written over 100 years ago: the Flexner Report.

In the early 1900s, the U.S. medical field was in disarray. Churning students through short academic terms with inadequate clinical facilities, medical schools were flooding the field with unqualified doctors — and pocketing the tuition fees. Dangerous quacks and con artists flourished.

Physicians led by the American Medical Association (A.M.A.) were pushing for reform. Abraham Flexner, an educator, was chosen to perform a nationwide survey of the state of medical schools.

He did not like what he saw.

Published in 1910, the Flexner Report blasted the unregulated state of medical education, urging professional standards to produce a force of “fewer and better doctors.”

Flexner recommended raising students’ pre-medical entry requirements and academic terms. Medical schools should partner with hospitals, invest more in faculty and facilities, and adopt Northern city training models. States should bolster regulation. Specialties should expand. Medicine should be based on science.

Source: The Black Mortality Gap, and a Document Written in 1910