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Fighting Truth and Mythology: Educating Black Patients About COVID-19

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I grew up in the healthcare world watching my mother, a Black nurse for more than 50 years, as she worked in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare settings. Now, at 73, my mother works in an assisted living community close to patients at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Once a week, my mother undergoes a COVID-19 test, and every time, the fear that my mom will become infected grows within me. That fear of what could happen to her is only made worse by the fact that being a Black American right now means you are more likely to get infected and die from COVID 19, with “rates more than 1.5 times their share of the population.”

According to the latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the non-Hispanic Black community makes up 12.5% of the population and 19.1% of COVID-19 deaths. Unfortunately, the Black community is also considered the group least likely to access healthcare (for COVID infection and for other needs) and is part of the larger group of Americans who are likely to fear vaccination. According to a Pew Study from June 2020, 44% of Black adults said they would not get a coronavirus vaccine if one were made available today.

With COVID-19 vaccines now on the immediate horizon for the general public, how can healthcare providers help reduce the infection rates in Black Americans and start to mitigate their distrust of healthcare before the introduction of vaccinations?

Validate Black Americans’ healthcare history, but demystify the current medical and scientific landscape.

Black experiences are real, and their fears and concerns about healthcare are real. You can’t fight something until first you understand its origins, and the same goes for the fears of many Black Americans when it comes to medical treatment, especially around vaccination. Many Black Americans are either the descendants of or are very aware of those who were part of the Tuskegee experiment, where, from 1932 to 1972, 600 low-income African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, many of whom had syphilis, were tracked by the U.S. government without their awareness. Many of these men passed the disease unknowingly to their family members, did not receive treatment and died. As the stated purpose of this experiment was to better understand the natural course of syphilis, many Black Americans felt at the time and continue to feel that they were and are “canaries in the coal mine,” utilized by scientists and doctors for experimentation without their consent or concern for their health.

In addition, Black patients have continued to face a host of healthcare disparities, facing higher rates of mortality throughout many medical disciplines, from cancer and heart conditions to maternal medicine.

So how can healthcare organizations help these patients lessen their fear and be active in preventing COVID infection?

  • Emphasize that you understand the fear as it pertains to the history. Don’t underplay it or disregard its importance to these patients’ understanding and concerns.
  • Help to eradicate mythology about COVID and about vaccinations not just through scientific data but by sharing the real-life stories of Black COVID survivors and their family — what did they learn about the experience, and how do they feel now about the importance of their healthcare?
  • Remind Black Americans they are more likely to become infected and potentially die from COVID-19 and that they can protect themselves with social distancing, wearing a mask and testing.
  • Detail how your organization specifically is treating COVID-19 patients, your plans for ensuring all patients have access to vaccinations when available, how the vaccines have been vetted for efficacy as well as safety, and what side effects they may expect.

Create digital campaigns and content that speak directly to the concerns of the Black community.

African Americans are rarely targeted specifically by healthcare communities, whether in image representation in digital advertising or even in blog or website content. To save the lives of the people in this community, you need to be blunt and direct.

Speak directly to the Black community, address their concerns, calm their fears, and help them build confidence in your healthcare providers and organization.

Partner with community leaders who are also working to help fight COVID-19 infection in the Black community, and look internally to leaders within your own organization as models.

Community leaders, from religious organizations to other social groups, can be extremely useful in helping to amplify your messaging, as it has been for efforts such as getting more Black men tested for prostate cancer and helping Black women get preventive care and treatment earlier for breast cancer. Consider creating downloadable COVID-19 educational content they can share within their organization or ask them to follow and share content from your blog and social media accounts. Consider specifically targeting Black women, who are just as likely as white women to be the sole drivers of healthcare in their homes. Message them about the importance of their healthcare and their families.

When it comes to building trust, research has shown that Black doctors have positively impacted Black patients’ health and created greater trust by Black Americans in their healthcare providers. Consider asking your Black healthcare providers, researchers or other employees who are well known by your Black patients to participate in your COVID-19 blog or website content, talk about COVID care on video, or host Q-and-A virtual conferences via social media. Also, if you are promoting virtual care options for your organization, consider including those providers in your advertising.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just a chance to help educate Black patients and the community about the disease. It’s also an opportunity to connect with audiences you may not have targeted before and to create long-lasting relationships and trust that can help these communities improve their overall health.

In the next blog entry in this series, we will talk about aging patients (those over 65), breaking down the truths and mythology around their digital healthcare habits and how to more effectively market and communicate health services to them.


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Chandra Craven

Chandra M. Craven is a Healthcare Digital Strategist who partners with national healthcare marketers to meet the patient consumer's demands and needs. Through her work, she ensures every type of patient's voices and needs are heard and included within communications and marketing efforts.

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