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Yes, there’s racial discrimination in health care. Students are trying to fix it.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Ramya Kumar has long felt that systemic racism is ingrained in the U.S. healthcare system, and she’s wanted to do something about it. An incident in an emergency room inspired her to take action.

She was working the front desk at a hospital in Iowa, where she grew up, when a Black woman walked into the ER complaining of abdominal pain. She was hunched over and grimacing in agony. Though there were no other patients in the waiting room at the time, the nurses made the woman sit and wait.

Ramya Kumar. Photo courtesy Ramya Kumar

Meanwhile, three other patients—all white—came into the ER after her, and were seen by medical staff immediately.

“That was really angering to see her treated that way,” said Kumar, who was in high school at the time and is now a third year pre-med student and president of Northeastern University Global Health Initiative. “Your skin color shouldn’t affect the quality of care you’re given.”

And yet it does, every day in America. 

Studies have suggested that who people are, where they came from, and how they look are often determining factors in the quality of care they receive. In a recent study by Northeastern, for example, researchers found that communities of color across the United States are disproportionately affected by both health and economic problems related to the coronavirus pandemic.

For Kumar and other students passionate about combating racism, however, the larger problem remains bigotry in the healthcare system that they believe has resulted in the loss of countless Black lives. Spurred by a determination to do something about the inequity and change the negative narrative around Black health issues, student organizations conducted a contact-a-thon fundraising drive on Saturday, June 20.

Eleven groups in total, including the Northeastern Black Student Association, Student Alliance for Prison Reform and the Black Engineering Student Society, have joined forces to create Black Health Matters, a collaborative effort by undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and graduates to financially support four organizations. They share a common focus— dismantling racism and reducing health disparities.

While their goal of raising $5,000 could be considered modest compared to larger corporate efforts in the tens of millions (Apple alone has pledged $100 million for criminal justice reform and education), Northeastern organizers will increase their goal if the donations surpass it. And that is exactly what has happened. The latest dollar tally as of mid-day Monday, June 22 was approaching $30,000, well above expectations.

“Healthcare policies like birth control and insurance coverage are created to harm certain populations,” said Kumar. “For so many years the U.S. healthcare system thinks Black health doesn’t matter, but it does.”

The idea for Black Health Matters came from a similar effort by Houston’s Rice University, which raised thousands recently in a contact-a-thon remote canvassing event. Northeastern’s students then contacted the Office of Alumni Relations to support their own campaign.

“They came to us and we said ‘We’ll do whatever we can to help you.’ It’s their idea we’re bringing to life,” said C. Hawkins, director of Student Engagement and Philanthropy in the Office of Alumni Relations.

“There’s an entire team to support these efforts over the long-term, and make sure this is not a one-time hit,” he said.

Northeastern’s contact-a-thon will involve a four-hour Zoom call open to the public from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. EDT. Participants will hear from the four beneficiary organizations, students and research experts on health disparities. They will then contact others to donate to the crowdfunding link.

Donations, which were originally supposed to close on Sunday, June 21, have been extended through Friday, June 26. They are being accepted via Northeastern’s Husky Starter platform, which is similar to GoFundMe.

While Black Health Matters officially launches Saturday, a number of other student-led money-raising projects related to social justice have been ongoing. 

Northeastern’s Social Justice Fund is focused on disenfranchised and marginalized groups, while Delta Sigma Pi is supporting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s legal defense fund.

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