Medicine law concept. Gavel and stethoscope on book close up

Addressing Racism through Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Medha D. Makhlouf

Numerous studies have documented that racism is a social determinant of health (SDoH) that negatively impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As such, racism is one of “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age” that are “mostly responsible for unfair and avoidable differences in health statuses.”

The U.S. health care system was not designed to respond to SDoH, much less to address racial health disparities. In fact, U.S. health care institutions have racist legacies that continue to influence the way they operate today. When health care providers fail to confront racism within and outside their walls, they perpetuate the racial health disparities that have plagued our nation since before its founding.

Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) is a model of collaboration and joint advocacy between lawyers and health care providers who seek to improve social conditions that affect health and well-being. MLPs aim to address SDoH on three levels: direct representation in civil legal matters, institutional change, and systemic advocacy. They typically employ legal interventions to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, such as nutritious food, health care, income, safe and stable housing, and uninterrupted energy and water utilities. Improving access to such resources is an important way of engaging with the work of health equity.

While some MLPs incorporate a racial justice lens in their work, many do not. MLPs are generally more oriented toward addressing the effects of racism as a SDoH, rather than as the cause of poor health. But considering the cross-cutting nature of racism as a SDoH, MLPs can and should address it directly. As Director of the MLP Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law, whose faculty has resolved to incorporate discussions of racism and inequality in the curriculum, I have begun researching Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a framework to understand how MLPs can build on their core activities to further address racism as a SDoH and make explicit the connections between racism and poor health. This post describes how MLPs can address racism as a SDoH in at least four ways that align with the goals of CRT.

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Man holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020.

How Social Movements Shape the Law to Address Health Disparities

By Aziza Ahmed

We are facing a health crisis in America. In thinking through the causes of health disparities, a now well-developed body of public health law scholarship focuses in on the central issue of law as a social determinant of health. This scholarship examines the issue of how legal rules can determine health outcomes. Property laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against minorities, for example, often result in poor Black communities living in neighborhoods in which they may be more exposed to pollutants, resulting in higher rates of breast cancer or asthma. Or, immigration practices, including ongoing profiling at the border, as well as detention practices, may have mental and physical health impacts.

What is missing from legal scholarship on the social determinants of health is an account of how communities respond to change the legal environments that have the effect of producing poor health outcomes. In other words, how do communities demand a better legal system with regard to health inequality? Here, we must turn to social movements who often drive our national conversation on access to health care by doing the hard work of identifying, naming, and drawing attention to the complexity of issues that people face.

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Syringe and vials of vaccine.

Racial Inclusivity in COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

By Colleen Campbell

Recent calls for racial inclusivity in vaccine trials, which often rely on genetic rationales while emphasizing medical distrust among African Americans, unfortunately lack an equally robust critique of medical racism and the ongoing reasons for this distrust.

Even though race lacks genetic meaning, the COVID-19 discourse is rife with biological notions of race. Because of [g]enetics related to racial differences” African Americans must be involved in clinical trials, said Dr. Larry Graham in an NBC News article. He continued: “We must be sure it works in Black folks.” For this reason, companies like biotech firm Moderna are enlisting Black religious leaders to heavily recruit African American participants. They are also exploiting networks previously used for HIV clinical trials.

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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/

Structural Racism: The Root Cause of the Social Determinants of Health

By Ruqaiijah Yearby, J.D., M.P.H.

In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois noted that social conditions, not genetics, impacted the health of Blacks, causing racial disparities in mortality rates. In 2010, the federal government formally recognized that social conditions, specifically the social determinants of health (SDOH), were responsible for racial health disparities.

Racial health disparities, estimated to cost the United States $175 billion in lost life years and $135 billion per year in excess health care costs and untapped productivity, persist because of the failure to address their root cause: structural racism.

Structural racism describes the way our systems are structured to produce racial inequalities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities in the SDOH, leading to racial health disparities.

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Woman holding sign that reads "I can't breathe."

Black Women Can’t Breathe

By Michele Goodwin

Years before George Floyd begged to be released from under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, Barbara Dawson, a fifty-seven year old Black woman, died begging a police officer, John Tadlock, not to remove her oxygen mask. Her death occurred right outside the Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, Florida, shortly before Christmas in 2015.

Just before Officer Tadlock’s arrival, Ms. Dawson arrived at the hospital seeking oxygen. The hospital’s response to Ms. Dawson’s request was to call law enforcement. Photographs show Ms. Dawson slumped next to the police car. A police recording captures the tragic end of Ms. Dawson’s life. Officer Tadlock reprimands Ms. Dawson: “Falling down like this and laying down, that’s not going to stop you from going to jail.”

Ms. Dawson’s life ended on the pavement, feet away from the entrance of the hospital that phoned the police on their patient — because she refused to leave. She lay there nearly twenty minutes before being pronounced dead. It turns out she had a blood clot in her lungs.

In some sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the image of Ms. Dawson, or the interactions of the hospital and officer, which further complicates the deadly exchange. Indeed, the interaction was far too normal: Black women fear for their health and safety when they do not seek care and, troublingly, even when they do.

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Close-up Of Doctor's Hand Measuring Blood Pressure Of Male Patient.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: A New Digital Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In the 1980s, a vanguard of critical race theorists debated their contemporaries as to whether law could or should play a role in achieving equity — in particular, racial equity. Scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Williams argued that while legal discourse historically had been used to oppress Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), history had shown that in the law also lay the seeds of empowerment. Conceptualizing BIPOC as persons endowed with legal rights, and as a community subject to heightened legal solicitude because of the historical injustices they have faced, has helped undergird their selfhood, dignity, identity and activism. Law could thus be a discourse of despair — but also one of hope.

Whether or not the years have proved those claims correct as to the law, today, a similar debate unfolds in the context of race, medicine, and health care. Today, medicine and the health care system embody discourses of power that rival the law. Will these discourses inevitably serve to oppress BIPOC — and if not, how can we harness their power to achieve justice? Those are the questions that this symposium seeks to answer.

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Dried psilocybe cubensis psilocybin magic mushrooms inside a plastic prescription medicine bottle isolated on white background.

As Cities Decriminalize Psychedelics, Law Enforcement Should Step Back

By Mason Marks

Amid rising rates of depression, suicide, and substance use disorders, drug makers have scaled back investment in mental health research. Psychedelics may fill the growing need for innovative psychiatric drugs, but federal prohibition prevents people from accessing their benefits. Nevertheless, some cities, dissatisfied with the U.S. war on drugs, are decriminalizing psychedelics.

In 2019, Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize mushrooms containing psilocybin, a psychedelic the FDA considers a breakthrough therapy for major depressive disorder (MDD) and treatment-resistant depression.

In a historic vote, Denver residents approved Ordinance 301, which made prosecuting adults who possess psilocybin-containing mushrooms for personal use the city’s “lowest law enforcement priority.” Since then, in Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, voters approved their own decriminalization measures.

As a Schedule I controlled substance, psilocybin remains illegal under federal law, and despite ongoing clinical trials, it is unlikely to become FDA approved for several years. Social distancing requirements due to COVID-19 are disrupting medical research causing further delays. But as the November election approaches, other U.S. cities prepare to vote on psychedelics.

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a stethoscope tied around a dollar bill, with a bottle of pills nearby

What Ever Happened to NIH’s “Fair Pricing” Clause?

By Jorge L. Contreras

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, calls have been made for “fair” and “reasonable” pricing of the vaccines and therapeutics that will eventually be approved to address the virus. A range of proposals in this regard have been made by members of Congress, the Trump Administration, various states, academics and civil society.

Amid this current debate, it is worth remembering the brief period from 1989 to 1995 when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) did impose reasonable pricing constraints on drugs that were developed as part of cooperative R&D agreements (“CRADAs”) between federal agencies and private industry.

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Washington, DC, USA -- March 4, 2020. Wide angle photo of a throng of protesters at an abortion rights rally in front of the Supreme Court.

June Medical v. Russo Reflects Ongoing Struggle with Black Women’s Constitutional Equality

By Michele Goodwin

The Supreme Court’s June Medical v. Russo case was more than just another cog in the wheel of the intensifying battle against the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Though, on its face, the case was about access to abortion, just beneath the surface, the law at issue represented a continuation of Louisiana’s historic resistance to sex and race equality. Read More

view of Chicago

What Two Neighborhoods in Chicago Show About Disparities During COVID-19

By Michael Atalla

Minorities, especially African-Americans in metropolitan areas, are being infected with and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts.

This phenomenon is occurring in many large cities like New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. This piece focuses on Chicago — arguably the most segregated city in all of America. Comparing two zip codes within Chicago city limits with similar population sizes but divergent racial composition, the disparities are striking.

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