Denial or ignorance? That’s the question. Whether people leave out information when teaching purposefully because they don’t want to accept it, or if it’s because they never learned it themselves. There has been a huge gap in all my biology classes that I have neglected to realize until Washington’s Medical Apartheid began to fill it. A gap full of neglect, suffering, and oppression that has left people without their lives so the rest of us could have the knowledge gained from their mistreatment.
Washington highlights the gruesome past of medicine and how the basis of human anatomy that is taught in classrooms today was first explored. Washington states, “Treatment was administered to blacks on the charity wards, but care was always secondary to practice, because the main purpose of the clinic was instruction, training, and experimentation for the physicians and students. Treatment took place without consent, often via unpleasant draconian measures.” Most of the information in my textbooks, I quickly realized, was based off cruel practices like this and I had no idea. Had my teachers purposefully left it out to be able to finish all the other material necessary for the course or had their professors never taught them about this history as well. Either way somewhere along the timeline people made the decisions to keep this out of the curriculum leaving biology majors like myself in absolute awe upon its discovery and with a new responsibility to make it right. Washington goes on to say, “the surgeon told his students flatly that the decision to amputate should be weighed differently according to the person’s race and class… although such an extreme remedy is a horrid deformity that should be the last resort for a white man, amputating the limb of a slave was a matter of comparatively little importance.” This was for me, the scariest history Washington brought to light because it can still be easily done today based upon how the doctor views his patient and decides what types of procedures they deserve. This statement made real for me what many people may be feeling before going to the doctor, and the genuine fear of them being a victim of this dehumanization.
Upon entering my English 101 class we went through the extensively long syllabus that quite frankly struggled to keep my attention. It was not until my professor Beth McCoy had stressed the importance of complete informed consent that I began to appreciate the length of the syllabus. This moment had always remained in the back of my head as she gave us the option to remove ourselves from the class if we so please. Although I always knew this was an option in my other classes as well, my other professors had never encouraged it before. I felt free in my decision to remain in the class and accept the responsibilities that came along with it. As the semester moved along and Washington’s words revealed the long, dark, and twisted path that trailed behind in the history of the medical profession I began to question my identity. Is this something I would be promoting as a dentist? Am I contributing to the problem by entering this field and participating in the biology major? I was scared and wondered why I was never given a long extensive consent form for this major before I agreed to do it. I wasn’t given complete consent as Beth McCoy had provided to our class and it was too late. I had agreed to something I didn’t bother to look into and now I have to pay for it (literally).
This happens more often than we realize. Some common examples for me consist of quickly filling out forms at the doctors, signing up for gym memberships, or signing a lease for an off-campus property at college. All things I have done without reading them over because I trusted that if others were doing it, I’d be safe as well. I without knowing it, now have a responsibility to spread the knowledge that this class and Washington’s Medical Apartheid has provided me in order to inform others of the field they are entering and give them the same understanding I now have of patient’s unwillingness to be treated. The medical community has a huge responsibility to provide trust back with its patients who fear being mistreated, and for good reason. When the lives and humanity of some groups have been consistently valued more than others, those undervalued groups are not going to put their lives in the hands of others unless absolutely necessary. This is a huge boundary to overcome to provide access to healthcare to all patients and should be a topic of discussion upon entering any type of medical profession. Without this knowledge the problem will never be repaired, and people will neglect medicine when they need it most out of fear.
Consent is the foundation of ethicality but at what point is it our responsibility to go out and inform ourselves versus someone handing us a lengthy consent form before everything we do? If you don’t take the time to completely inform yourself whether it’s through research or reading a pre-made consent form, you must be ready to accept the types of responsibilities you will be left with as a result. So, doctors, now that we’ve all given consent, where do we start?