During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Joel Bervell, a medical student at Johns Hopkins Medicine, noticed that pulse oximeters, which measure blood oxygen levels, can overestimate levels in people with darker skin, potentially misleading Black people with COVID-19 about their need for medical care. Bervell shared this information on TikTok and received a significant response from both medical professionals and patients. This inspired him to explore other ways in which medicine neglects communities of color, and he has since posted numerous TikToks addressing racial disparities in medicine.
Bervell believes that racism is embedded in medicine, with examples such as the GFR equation, which assumed that Black patients had better kidney functioning than any other race, leading to Black patients being overlooked for kidney transplants. He also cites the racial correction in spirometry, a lung functioning test, which assumes that Black and Asian patients have lower lung functioning than any other race, resulting in those populations having to show worse lung functioning to receive a diagnosis. Despite these issues, Bervell sees positive changes happening in medicine and feels hopeful for the future.
Bervell’s advocacy for racial equity in medicine has gained significant traction, with his TikTok account amassing over 400,000 followers. He also co-founded an organization called White Coats for Black Lives, which is dedicated to promoting racial justice in healthcare. In addition, he has spoken at various conferences and events, and his work has been featured in numerous media outlets.
While it’s encouraging to see progress being made in the field of medicine, there is still much work to be done. In addition to the examples Bervell shared, there are countless other ways in which systemic racism impacts healthcare, from the lack of diversity in clinical trials to the disproportionate rates of maternal mortality among Black women.
However, by bringing attention to these issues and advocating for change, Bervell and other activists like him are helping to create a more equitable healthcare system. As he said in an interview with Forbes, “I think it’s important for everyone to do their part in the fight against systemic racism. If everyone does something, we can collectively move the needle.”
Overall, Joel Bervell’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of speaking out against injustice and advocating for marginalized communities. His work serves as an inspiration to future healthcare professionals and activists who seek to create a more equitable world.