The lives of 83,500 black people could be saved each year if the racial health care gap were narrowed, a Wayne State professor said in a lecture yesterday.

Julie Rowe
Willie Underwood, a professor of urology at Wayne State University, spoke on the racial disparities in health care in the Wedge Room of West Quad yesterday. He was invited by Alpha Kappa Alpha, a campus sorority. (JEREMY CHO/Daily)

Willie Underwood, a Wayne State University professor of urology, argued in a presentation that the disadvantages blacks face in health care can be attributed to the precedent set by unequal treatment in the past. He spoke before about 30 students in the Wedge Room of West Quad and spoke in commemoration of Black History Month.

According to figures presented by Underwood, blacks are 30 percent more likely to die of heart attacks, 40 percent more likely to die of strokes and twice as likely as whites to die of breast cancer. They trail whites in health coverage, vaccinations, prenatal care and exercise rates. The 10 leading causes of death among blacks include homicide and HIV, neither of which appear in the top 10 causes for whites.

But these differences aren’t caused by race and genetics alone, Underwood said.

He said physicians in predominantly black areas are less likely to be certified, hindering their ability to provide high-quality care.

He presented a 2002 study of that showed that race alone couldn’t explain the survival discrepancies seen globally. Underwood said the inequalities are a direct result of the history of slavery in the United States.

“Based upon American history, I’m not surprised by what we see,” he said.

Underwood referred to a 1932 study of black syphilis victims who were given toxic salves of mercury and arsenic. And as recently as 1961, black females were given hysterectomies without consent, he said.

School of Nursing junior Bayyinah Muhammad, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s standards board co-chair, said she’s seen racial disparities in care during her clinical practices for nursing school. She said she thought the information would “help communities help themselves.”

School of Nursing junior Scharnice Ward agreed.

“The U of M Health System is not diverse,” she said. “It’s expensive, and most minorities do not have an opportunity to take advantage of it.”

James Dalong Lu and David R. Kinzer contributed to this report.

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