On Dec. 4, Dr. Susan Moore posted a video from her hospital bed in the Indianapolis area. Short of breath and with an oxygen tube in her nose, she said that she was denied proper care while being treated for COVID-19.
Less than three weeks later, she died from the virus.
Moore, a Black physician based in an Indianapolis suburb, says she was denied some Remdesivir — an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19 — and pain medication by a doctor at IU Health North. And she says the white, male doctor tried to send her home prematurely.
“I was crushed,” Moore says in the nearly eight-minute video, “[the doctor] made me feel like I was a drug addict, and he knew I was a physician.”
She goes on to say, “I put forth and I maintain, if I was white I wouldn’t have to go through that.”
That video — with its allegations of racial insensitivity — have sparked an outcry on social media. Some commenters — including doctors — say the allegations reflect long-standing structural racism within the medical profession.
IU Health said in a statement that due to privacy concerns, it cannot “comment on a specific patient, their medical history or conditions. As an organization committed to equity and reducing racial disparities in healthcare, we take accusations of discrimination very seriously and investigate every allegation.
“Treatment options are often agreed upon and reviewed by medical experts from a variety of specialties, and we stand by the commitment and expertise of our caregivers and the quality of care delivered to our patients every day.”
IU Health did not clarify whether it is officially investigating the allegations in Moore’s video.
Moore’s Facebook posts say that eventually, more scans were ordered, and they showed a progression of the virus. They also say she contacted a patient advocate and the IU Health’s chief medical officer to complain about her treatment.
The posts say she improved at IU Health North and returned home for a short time. But her symptoms worsened and she went to a different hospital. Her last update said she was being transferred to the ICU.
Tony Gillespie of the Indiana Minority Health Coalition says watching Moore’s video reminded him of what people of color face in America’s medical system.
“Health disparities and institutional racism is not new,” he says. “And my heart goes out to Dr. Moore’s family. But what I just found just incredibly compelling and incredibly sad is that she still had the state of mind to do a video documentation of what her experiences were. And as I listen to her, I know what has happened to countless men and women of color across this country.”
Research shows that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are more likely to experience severe complications and die from the disease — partly because they are overrepresented in frontline jobs.
Gillespie says systemic racism in the medical community has led to misinformation and myths — for example, that Black people can withstand high amounts of pain. As a result, he says patients often have to over-advocate for themselves in the exam room.
“As minorities, people of color, we know that when we walk in the door, we have to be prepared to explain ourselves,” he says. “We have to be prepared to say to the clinician, “These are my symptoms, I’ve done my own research, this is what I’d like to happen,’ or ‘I like these medications.’”
Many health systems across the U.S. have been wrestling with the issue of racism.
In October, IU Health joined two other Central Indiana’s health systems in pledging to do more to end health disparities and inequity. Among their goals was reducing discrimination among staff and patients, and improving “the equity of care by regularly measuring, monitoring and improving the care provided to underserved populations.”
One IU Health physician says Moore’s video did not come as a surprise, and her organization is not immune to issues of discrimination.
“I do know that there are issues at IU Health, and within the city in general, where Black and brown patients have expressed to me personally, their frustration at how they feel that their voices are not being heard,” says the doctor, who did not want to be identified because she is concerned about retribution at work. “I would say that I’ve definitely witnessed firsthand, my patients and their families experiencing bias.”
She was not involved in Moore’s case, so she has no insight into the details of her medical history or care. “Whether treatment protocols were not followed, I can’t say, because I don’t know all of the data, all the things that happened. I think the step that was missed here that is most glaring is compassionate care.”
She says IU Health has taken steps in recent years to address racism, but there’s a lot of room to grow.
Dr. Linda Burke, a board-certified OB-GYN from Orlando, knew Moore through a social media group of Black female doctors. They also belonged to the same sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Burke took to Twitter to express concern after seeing her “soror,” or sorority sister, in pain.
“My poor soror,” she said later in a phone interview. “This is where Black people get harmed.”
Burke says she has witnessed “racist” interactions between patients and healthcare workers throughout her career, such as when she became the first Black female physician at the health department in Osceola County, Florida. She says structural racism in medicine is so pervasive, she won’t mince words on the subject.
“White male physicians get away with murder, because the good ole’ boy system still exists in medicine,” Burke says.
She says the pandemic has compounded the problem of calling out racism in medicine. Social distancing measures have restricted visits from family members who can serve as watchdogs and advocates.
Dr. Burke recommends that patients never enter a hospital setting alone, and ask immediately about their options for a patient advocate or the hierarchy of accountability.
“As a patient who does not have an MD behind his or her name, I would strongly recommend going to the nursing director,” she says. “If you don’t get satisfaction from the nursing director, then the next step would be the chief medical officer.
“And if you don’t receive adequate satisfaction from the chief medical officer, then you attempt to talk to the CEO, but you do exactly what Dr. Moore did. You record it. She left us a very powerful message. And that was, ‘This is why Black people get killed.’”
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.