Troubling History In Medical Research Still Fresh For Black Americans : Shots - Health News An influential Harlem church is trying to help the National Institutes of Health overcome reluctance by some African-Americans to participate in a medical study of 1 million diverse Americans.
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Troubling History In Medical Research Still Fresh For Black Americans

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Troubling History In Medical Research Still Fresh For Black Americans

Troubling History In Medical Research Still Fresh For Black Americans

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About one-third of African-Americans say that they have experienced discrimination at a doctor's office or health clinic. More than 1 in 5 say they would avoid medical care because they're concerned about discrimination. Those are two findings of a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


The poll and considerable other evidence highlight a long history of distrust of the health care system by African-Americans. One of the most egregious examples is the medical experiment known as the Tuskegee Study, a famous episode where black men were left to die without receiving antibiotics. There have been others.

SIEGEL: As part of our series You, Me and Them, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein looks at how distrust of medicine underlies a major problem - the relative lack of minority participants in medical research.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a famous African-American church in Harlem. Hundreds of worshippers are streaming into the pews. The Reverend Calvin O. Butts III steps onto the pulpit.


CALVIN O BUTTS III: Now may we stand for our call to worship. How good and pleasant it is when all of God's children get together.

STEIN: He begins a powerful three-hour service filled with music, dancing, prayers and preaching.


BUTTS III: Here we go - woke up. (Singing) Woke up this morning with my mind...

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Staying on Jesus.

STEIN: But then about an hour into the service, Reverend Butts does something he's never done before.


BUTTS III: I would like to introduce the Precision Medicine Initiative.

STEIN: It's a huge new study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.


BUTTS III: It's now entitled All Of Us. It is a landmark longitudinal research effort that aims to engage 1 million participants of all ethnicities to improve our ability to prevent and treat disease based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment and genetic makeup.

STEIN: Why is this famous preacher at this famous African-American church talking about a big government medical study in the middle of Sunday service? Well, to understand why, I went to a clinic 30 blocks away at Columbia University.

ANNE HALLIWELL: Hello, Rob Stein. Nice to meet you - Anne Halliwell.

STEVE HALLIWELL: Hi. I'm Steve Halliwell.

STEIN: The Halliwells just volunteered for the study. They'll spend the next hour in front of our computer tablet learning all about it...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If you complete the consent, the next step will be sharing your health data. We hope that this will help researchers find new things, including maybe the next big health breakthrough.

STEIN: ...Answering detailed questions...

A. HALLIWELL: Have I ever had at least one drink of any kind of alcohol - God, yes.

S. HALLIWELL: Zero cigarettes per day, electronic nicotine - no.

STEIN: ...Getting their blood pressure, height, weight and waist measured before rolling up a sleeve to give blood so scientists can get a sample of their DNA.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you can just make a tight fist for me, please. Keep your arm nice and straight.

STEIN: The Halliwells live north of Manhattan on the Hudson River, and they're white. And that's the problem. White people like the Halliwells are much more likely than black people to volunteer for medical studies.


S. HALLIWELL: Mmm hmm.

STEIN: Why? Well, the reasons are complicated. One is that black people may not get the chance as often. They just aren't asked or have the time or money to volunteer. But another is that medical research has a long, troubled racial history - the Tuskegee Experiment when doctors let black men die from syphilis; Henrietta Lacks, the poor African-American woman whose cancer cells scientists and drug companies used for decades without her permission. The abuses go on and on. So the National Institutes of Health has been working to overcome all of that, among other things, like getting help from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) There's healing for your sorrow, healing for your pain.

STEIN: Back at the church, Reverend Butts is exhorting his congregation to volunteer.


BUTTS III: This research is not like the Tuskegee Experiment, and it is supported by some members of the Henrietta Lacks family. And it is not just for black people, by the way. It's for all ethnicities. So there are a lot of people participating. And you can bet your life that white folk are in this. They want to know what's going to keep them alive. And we ought to know what's going to keep us alive.


STEIN: As the service ends and the parishioners file out of the church, they find a block party getting started on the street outside.


STEIN: At one of the folding tables lining the block, researchers from the NIH, Columbia and two other New York hospitals are answering questions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So what is this? So you're doing a research. Tell me a little bit about that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes. So our goals - it's really a unique program, and our goal is to get participants - a diverse range of participants. So we want women. We want minorities. We want everybody. But we really want women and minorities to participate in this in this community of course.

STEIN: Many people are enthusiastic, like Joanne Thigpen.

JOANNE THIGPEN: I can't wait for this program to start. I'm very excited about it for myself and my children. So I'm - I can't wait.

STEIN: But some seem wary, like Deborah Fleming. She listens patiently but then declines an invitation to sign up. I pull her aside to ask why.

You seem to be hesitating a bit.

DEBORAH FLEMING: As an African-American, I know that sometimes these things are used against us, not to our advantage. So that's why I'm reticent about joining.

STEIN: I heard the same sort of thing from Benjamin Vines Jr., who was enjoying the party down the street.

BENJAMIN VINES JR: It reminds me of the Tuskegee-type thing. And in my culture, African-Americans are scared of the doctor. They don't go to the doctor until the last minute, until we're almost on our deathbed simply because of that. And...

STEIN: Because of Tuskegee?


STEIN: At first, I thought it was only older parishioners who feel that way. But as the block party was breaking up, I found Hortencia Gooding. She's a grad student who lives in Harlem.

HORTENCIA GOODING: I see my friends mentioning Tuskegee all the time on Facebook. There's a lot of deep, deep-seated fear and concern that black lives don't matter and that the medical community really will harm people of African descent on purpose just for profit or just to help someone from another race.

STEIN: For others, their reluctance has nothing to do with Tuskegee or Henrietta Lacks. Don't forget. The study is asking volunteers to give up a sample of their DNA. Here's what Clerance Johnson said when I asked him about that. He's 51 and drives a truck.

CLERANCE JOHNSON: No, not my DNA - I can't.

STEIN: Why's that?

JOHNSON: Because I don't know what they might use it for. It might link me to something that I don't want to be linked to - any criminal activities.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Take me up (ph).

STEIN: So the question is, will the help of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and others be enough to overcome these deep suspicions and other obstacles that prevent minorities from participating in medical research? Rob Stein, NPR News New York.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Take me up. Take me up.

CHANG: Our series continues over the next several weeks as explore the discrimination experiences of Latinos, whites, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and LGBTQ adults.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Take me up. Take me up.

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