As we continue our focus on National Minority Health Month, an initiative created to help continue the advancement of health equity across the country for all racial and ethnic groups, we want to take this opportunity to also focus on maternity health for Black women. A number of individuals have spoken out recently about their own personal experiences. The troubling issue is that women of color are at higher risk of death during childbirth. Often our symptoms and voices are not heard by our medical professionals. One may argue that the biases and disparities that exist are unintentional, or are based on false and preconceived notions about the health characteristics of Black women. Some of these myths can include that Black women can tolerate pain, Black women tend to over exaggerate their feelings, or that Black women are not capable of taking charge of their own health by asking valid questions because we aren't educated enough. The truth is, whether the medical community has unintentional biases or not, the outcome still remains dire for Black women who fall victim to these biases. We pay for it with our lives or avoidable consequences to our long term health.
Have you ever been to a medical appointment and heard something outrageous, or had another physician tell you something about your own body that you know is not true? Or perhaps instead you have had a physician devalue or dismiss your concerns? These can be common practices when we have conversations with certain healthcare providers. It is important to be able to have open, and honest communication with your physician, and to have your medical questions fully addressed. A physician that discourages you to leverage the wealth of information available online, or by reading in order to play an active role in your maternal wellness journey, is your sign to look for a new healthcare provider. Your doctor should always encourage healthy dialogue and answer your questions in a non-condescending manner. They should also not feel threatened or offended. Your doctor's main priority should be to always make sure that you are healthy, comfortable, and heard.
Too often we are taught to take whatever advice we get and deal with it, or not to question any medical advice or lack thereof. Stereotypes and false narratives claim that we are strong and can handle physical pain or discomfort. Additionally, as women, and especially as women of color, we aren't supposed to focus on our mental or physical health. We are treated as if our main job is to deliver a healthy baby without any other concerns about the pathway to that journey. Then in turn if something is wrong with the baby, or if something goes wrong during delivery, it has to be our fault. These are the burdensome thoughts that plague us during what can be an extremely difficult journey for some women. A journey that may start with the simple ability to get pregnant. If you have suffered with fibroids and been told no other treatments will work for you to get pregnant, you may have either prematurely gotten a hysterectomy years ago or underwent multiple fibroid removal procedures in order to carry to term or conceive. The physiological impact of this is not something that has been studied or treated. Some medical providers may not include discussions on this during prenatal visits during the course of the pregnancy. The mental trauma that can exist with trying to get pregnant and then worrying about carrying the pregnancy to term is real and can impact a woman's mental health. This can inevitably increase stress levels which can ultimately manifest into physical complications for women during their pregnancy.
In a society that has the capability to provide quality and advanced healthcare treatment, there is no excuse for anyone to die during childbirth. Particularly when issues that could have been treated timely would save needless deaths. The alarming issue is that this has nothing to do with education or economical backgrounds. Entertainers and public figures such as Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Viola Davis, and many more have spoken out about their struggles with their pregnancies and the process of trying to conceive.
Countless healthy women have died and according to the CDC, Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women. Inherently this shows something is desperately wrong with our healthcare system and that it is failing many Black women. The question is, what can, and will we do about it? There have been studies and those studies continue, but more needs to be done to fix this problem. The first step is to not panic and fear that your outcome will end negatively, but rather arm yourself with knowledge and do not be afraid to ask questions. Demand from your health provider to be heard. During the early days of the pandemic when COVID-19 patients took priority with hospital visits, some women were discouraged to come in despite knowing there was something wrong with them or their unborn child. This later caused increased complications for both mothers and unborn children and further pushed the pattern of ignoring women of color and their medical needs. Always listen to your body and intuition.
If possible, have your partner, family member, or trusted person be your sounding board so they can advocate for you. Recognizing that many women may not have that support in place, many hospitals or clinics have social workers. Many of them can direct you to support services so that you do not have to be alone. The key takeaway is to make sure your concerns get addressed. Discuss things like pain management and warning signs to watch out for so you know when to visit the hospital. Discuss these things as early as possible during your pregnancy. If something doesn't feel right with you or your child, and you feel like your doctor is dismissive, find another doctor. Some have even sought midwives for better outcomes during the birthing process feeling that they are capable of providing more resources and are from shared cultural backgrounds. Women of color have also expressed they received more attention from midwives especially during wellness or prenatal visits than from traditional medical visits that can often feel rushed. No matter how good of a relationship you have with your doctor, try to find a labor coach, partner, or friend that can be there with you during your childbirth. Having that extra set of eyes is crucial, and they can advocate for you on your behalf when you can't. Let's continue to demand better so that every woman can have the safe childbirth experience that they deserve.