Struggling to breathe and pausing between sentences, Susan Moore mustered enough energy to record herself from her hospital bed, where she was being treated for covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The message she shared: Not even her status as a doctor shielded her from the inferior medical care long endured by other African Americans.
Her White doctor didn’t believe she was short of breath, she said – even though he knew he was treating a fellow licensed physician. Staff at the hospital near Indianapolis attempted to discharge her early, Moore said. And her pleas for medication to quiet pain in her neck were met with sneers, she said.
“I was crushed. He made me feel like a drug addict. And he knew I was a physician. I don’t take narcotics,” Moore recalled in a Dec. 4 video viewed by millions. “I put forward and I maintain if I was White, I wouldn’t have to go through that.”
Moore, 52, died this week, another victim of a virus that is ravaging African Americans and exposing racial disparities and discrimination rampant in the nation’s health-care system. Her video, first shared in physicians’ Facebook groups and more broadly after Moore’s death, has become a rallying cry to confront bias in the medical system.
Indiana University Health System, which operates the hospital, declined to comment on the details of Moore’s treatment but said it would implement “new anti-racism, anti-bias and civility training for all team members.”
Doctors who followed the case cannot directly link Moore’s death to the problems she recounted in her early treatment. But Moore’s story of her pain being dismissed reinforces what studies have repeatedly shown: Even taking wealth, education and insurance status into account, Black patients receive worse medical care and face worse outcomes.
African Americans are routinely undertreated for pain compared with White people who have similar medical conditions. Physicians are more prone to racial bias as they become burned out, a particularly salient finding as the pandemic leaves hospitals overburdened and staff overworked.
Beyoncé and Serena Williams shared their stories of near-fatal pregnancy complications, showing how international stardom didn’t shield them from high rates of maternal complications facing African Americans. Moore’s death comes weeks after another Black Indiana doctor, Chaniece Wallace, died shortly after childbirth.
“We know from studies that racism doesn’t stop because of your socioeconomic status or education status,” said Loucresie Rupert, a doctor who co-founded Physician Women SOAR, a group devoted to addressing racial discrimination in medicine. “To see that in real time and to see the consequences, that has really shaken up a lot of the black physicians I know.”
Indiana University Health offered condolences for Moore.
“As an organization committed to equity and reducing racial disparities in healthcare, we take accusations of discrimination very seriously and investigate every allegation,” the statement said. “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.”
In her video, Moore, speaking with the precision of a physician describing a patient’s plight, said doctors were ready to discharge her after only two doses of remdesivir, an antiviral drug prescribed by some physicians, and said she no longer needed the medication. She said a CT scan validated her reports of pain by showing infections and inflammation in her neck and lungs. After doctors agreed to prescribe pain medication, Moore said she waited two-and-a-half hours to receive doses, and a nurse snapped when she pointed out the delay.
She grew incensed as she recalled how the same nurse later told her he marched in a Black Lives Matter protest.
“He wouldn’t even know how to march, probably can’t spell it,” Moore said, before striking a more somber note.
“This is how Black people get killed. When you send them home and they don’t know how to fight for themselves.”
Her video sparked an uproar in a physicians Facebook group, with some members offering assistance and intervention on her behalf.
Christina Council, a primary care physician in Maryland and member of the Facebook group, said she thought about a White colleague who promptly received morphine when complaining of severe headaches, in contrast to Moore having to wait for a CT scan. And she thought about the African Americans who cannot rely on hundreds of medical professionals to rally to their side.
“What about those individuals who don’t have that or don’t know how to advocate for themselves?” Council said. “This is why we have such a mistrust, a distrust, of the health-care system, especially in minority populations.”
Moore periodically provided updates on her Facebook post with her video, noting that her care improved and a chief medical officer at the hospital promised diversity training for the staff.
Less than 12 hours after Moore returned home, her fever and heart rate spiked, and she went to a different hospital for care.
“Those people were trying to kill me,” she wrote. “Clearly everyone has to agree they discharge[d] me way too soon.”
In her final update, she said she was being transferred to the intensive care unit with breathing support.
Moore’s relatives could not be reached for comment. Her son Henry Muhammed told the New York Times that his mother had to advocate previously for proper medical care when seeking treatment for inflammatory lung disease.
Moore’s condition deteriorated Dec. 10 when she was intubated, Muhammed said, and she died Sunday, two days after being placed on a ventilator.
Some doctors have been incensed to see other physicians cast doubt on Moore’s story by saying doctors are sometimes reluctant to provide pain medication to White patients or that she may not have met clinical criteria for some treatments.
Such comments targeting a Black doctor reinforce how African Americans are frequently doubted and viewed with skepticism in medical offices, they said.
“There was a non-Black male physician who said, ‘In my experience, when doctors treat other doctors they go above and beyond,’ ” Rupert said. “And I was like exactly, in your experience. This is how racism works.”
Kadijah Ray, an Illinois doctor who co-founded Physicians Women SOAR, said Moore’s story illustrates the need to expand the ranks of Black physicians, starting as early as high school, to identify a new generation of Black doctors.
“We have these tragic instances, and everyone is in an uproar and it goes away until next time,” Ray said. “We need to have serious conversations about what to do to undo it.”