Racism can impact physical health says Toronto physician

Dr. Onye Nnorom wants Public Health Ontario to gather more race-based data to help doctors understand and deal with the mental and physical health impacts of racism.
Dr. Onye Nnorom, Associate Program Director, Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency Program at the University of Toronto. (Dr. Onye Nnorom)

Experiencing direct or systemic racism can have a negative impact on a person's mental and physical health, according to a Toronto physician.

Dr. Onye Nnorom, an associate program director with the University of Toronto's Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency Program, looked into the impacts of racism on the human body.

"Experiencing racism is a form of stress," she told The Morning Edition's Craig Norris. "We know that for all of us, stress can affect our mental and physical health." 

But it's not that simple.

As she explains it, chronic stress can increase the production of hormones, leading to health outcomes like hypertension and increased risk of diabetes. 

Social and economic barriers

Institutional racism can also create conditions like poverty, unemployment and a lack of trust in societal institutions and systems, like hospitals and the health care system.

With those social and economic barriers, it is often difficult for some people to take care of their physical health.

"If you can't afford to feed your family, then that leads you down a whole other series of situations where you're not getting optimal health," Nnorom said.

Need routine data collection

She says the best way to deal with those outcomes is to record information on groups that are disproportionately disadvantaged and marginalized.

But, according to Nnorom, Canada does not routinely collect race and ethnicity-based data needed to observe those patterns and learn about those populations.

"We don't have a great deal of evidence, because we're not collecting that information routinely across Canada," she told CBC News. 

She recently presented her findings to Public Health Ontario in the hope that they will begin collecting the necessary data on a regular basis.