Aiken, SC (04/18/2023) — When honors student and junior Sophie Meredith took Dr. Melencia Johnson's class, Black Experience Through Film, that experience ignited her own interest in exploring the issue of institutional racism and oppression faced by misrepresented and disadvantaged individuals in society.
A biology major who plans to become a physician assistant, Meredith will graduate in December and chose racial bias in health care as the focus for her senior capstone project.
That project, Pre-Existing Conditions of Color: Infectious disease and access to health care in South Carolina, which she presented during April's Scholar Showcase, focuses on access to health care for Blacks in the early 1900s in Charleston and Greenville, pre- and post-antibiotics.
The topic, said Meredith, is still relevant today. She says that current statistics from the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Black people are significantly more likely than White people to suffer from chronic health conditions like diabetes and asthma, have the highest mortality rate for all cancers compared to any other racial group, and have an infant mortality rate that is nearly twice the national average.
Meredith's project accessed death records on the Ancestry.com database from nearly a century ago. It was an eye-opening look at how deep the roots of racial bias go. Social segregation and difficulty in obtaining education were among the key factors for Blacks, said Meredith. As just one example, in 1890, only 30 Black physicians practiced in the entire state of South Carolina. In comparison, by 1900, 1,100 White physicians were practicing in the state.
Still, Meredith hypothesized that pre-antibiotics, deaths in Black and White children up to age 12 in Charleston and Greenville would be roughly the same, given the fact that no racial groups had access to these new medicines. She expected to see improved mortality among White children in the post-antibiotic era. But what surprised her was the inequity both pre- and post-antibiotics.
"The Black population made up about 60% of the Charleston population, yet Black children accounted for nearly 80% of child infectious disease deaths, both pre-antibiotics and post-antibiotics," she said in her presentation. "In Greenville, a quarter of the population was Black, yet Black children accounted for a third of deaths pre-antibiotic and half of deaths post-antibiotics.
"While the overall number of deaths decreased for both races after antibiotics were introduced, the rate of change between races was significant."
For Meredith, the work provokes the question: How far we have come, really, in reducing racial health disparities? Given current statistics, the answer is sobering. But, she said, "I find this as an opportunity to not continue in the dismissiveness our country has shown in institutional racism. I hope I will carry this information into my future profession [and continue] educating myself and educating others.
"What I was looking at was access to health care, and I'm going to be a part of that and so I hope I can partake in that change."