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Healthcare Disparities Black Women Receive and What to Do About Them

To say that we live in a post-racial society would be a gross myth and incorrect claim. Those who cannot “see race” only claim so because race may not be weaponized against them. Systemic racism continues to infiltrate institutions, further embodied by individuals who systemically act on their prejudice. This happens with such frequency, in alarming degrees, that it becomes a matter of life or death.

There are unfortunately many avenues by which we can see this blatantly demonstrated, but we can first direct our attention towards healthcare, and how black women are subject to numerous disparities that could cost them their life.

A flawed and biased system

The healthcare system is biased. This is true in terms of race, sex, gender, and class – which is why an intersectional approach is needed to assess it. Women’s pain is often dismissed more than that of men’s, even more so when they are black. This gives credence to the fact that maternal mortality remains a huge problem in healthcare, with roughly 65,000 women undergoing near-fatal childbirth- or pregnancy-related complications annually.

The outlook is far worse for black women who are three to four times more likely to die due to these complications. It is even more troubling to note that a number of these deaths are preventable. The disproportionate maternal mortality facts may stem several myths about racial differences with regards to pain – one of these is that black people have less sensitive nerve endings compared to white people. When patients have trouble communicating their pain and its causes, healthcare providers may tend to dismiss their testimony altogether, further perpetuating discrimination.

Assumptions cloud judgment

Healthcare professionals who act on their unwarranted assumptions end up clouding their judgment. Elite athlete Serena Williams shared her own story, having experienced racism following a C-section with her history of pulmonary embolisms. Her pain and shortness of breath were dismissed; her request for immediate care was doubted. Williams’s suspicions of her complications were correct, and she ended up bedridden for six weeks. It is true that black people have worse underlying health conditions – but this is not a matter of biology, behavior, or genetics, but of greater exposure to health hazards.

Williams’s story serves as a cautionary tale, and is evidence that even black women who have the means to seek proper care are adversely affected by racial bias. The sobering reality is that this begins from the moment black babies are born to black mothers. There is intergenerational trauma and discrimination inherited solely on the basis of race. This is likewise true for mental health – black women are also more likely to experience perinatal depression within their first year postpartum. Given these disconcerting facts, healthcare providers need to change their attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Moreover, there needs to be greater inclusion in terms of who gets to decide what is equitable and accessible; true and fair.

Building on inclusivity

There are lots of black midwives and doulas who are attempting to fill in the gaps in the medical system to initiate change. However, activists argue that more radical work needs to be done to protect black mothers. Social workers have been involved in healthcare in order to expand the view of medicine to encompass psychosocial and emotional needs as well. Perhaps more relevant to the discussion, social workers are able to advocate for those who are underrepresented – needed now more than ever. Those who are trained or who pursue a bachelor’s in social work degree are taught to engage diversity and difference. While these individuals play a crucial role and could significantly offer both their expertise and empathy to black women, the National Association of Social Workers identifies that there is still a massive shortage in qualified social workers across the United States. Underrepresentation continues to run rampant across a number of institutions, and therefore it is extremely apparent that there needs to be a new wave of professionals who will truly protect, serve, and do no harm in whatever capacity and competency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has consequently revealed that racism is a pandemic that needs to be cured from the very institutions themselves. As we witness more deaths among black people amid these twin pandemics, it is with great hope that it won’t take a rise in numbers for people to realize that there needs to be a rigorous reckoning across the board.

Written exclusively for Shafiamonroe.com by Rita Bishop

One Response to Healthcare Disparities Black Women Receive and What to Do About Them

  1. Leslie Farrington December 17, 2020 at 2:55 pm #

    Thank you for this summary of the status quo of racism and other -isms in our society and in healthcare in particular. Fortunately there is a rapidly growing army of Birth Workers, Birth Justice and Reproductive Justice Activists, and Maternal Health Advocates here and abroad. They are equipped with the solutions which the Black Community has been using and continues to use in a growing movement to decolonize and restore sacred Birth. All are guided by the principle of Ubuntu and the spirituality and love passed down through the generations. Therein lies our strength and our hope.

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Shafia M. Monroe, DEM. CDT, MPH
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