Racial discrimination in healthcare: How our system treats Black mothers

Racial discrimination in healthcare: How our system treats Black mothers

By Alanna Iacovetti

Photo by Alex Elle via Medium.com

In an interview for POLITICO’s “Public Health on the Brink” series, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy suggested that the state’s high maternal mortality rate wouldn't be as bad if we disregard the deaths of Black mothers:

"About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear. Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality."

Louisiana’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the U.S. and more than triple the national average at 58.1 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to World Population Review. They are among the worst in every count. According to Cassidy, who supports overturning Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood, it’s not as terrible as it seems if we don’t count women of color, whose maternal death rates are about four times higher than that of white mothers in the state. Over 50% of those deaths could have been prevented, as stated in a study done by the journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

It’s no secret why that is. It all comes down to structural racism and individual bias in healthcare, which has caused women of color to receive inadequate care compared to white women. In the U.S., approximately 17 mothers out of 100,000 die due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three black mothers die for every white mother recorded. 

We are failing Black mothers by refusing to listen to their concerns. Research has shown that they are more likely to be ignored or dismissed when they seek medical help for symptoms such as shortness of breath or swelling of the legs during pregnancy, according to Michelle Williams, the Dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health.

"Other research has shown that, in many widely read books and newspapers, the word ‘black’ is most frequently paired with words like ‘poor,’ ‘violent,’ ‘religious,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘cheerful,’ and ‘dangerous.’ The word ‘white,’ on the other hand, is most often linked with words such as ‘wealthy,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘conventional,’ ‘stubborn,’ ‘successful,’ and ‘educated.’ People absorb these sorts of messages and develop unconscious biases that favor whites over blacks. This happens even among people who believe in racial equality. Clinicians are no exception. Previous studies have shown, for instance, that higher levels of implicit bias among clinicians is linked with biased treatment recommendations for black patients, as well as poorer quality patient-doctor communication and lower ratings by patients from racial or ethnic minority groups about the quality of their encounters with doctors."

This is a health crisis for women in the United States, who are twice as likely to die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth than in Canada or the United Kingdom. For women of color, that risk is much higher:

“The CDC now estimates that 700 to 900 new and expectant mothers die in the U.S. each year, and an additional 500,000 women experience life-threatening postpartum complications. More than half of these deaths and near deaths are from preventable causes, and a disproportionate number of the women suffering are black. Put simply, for black women far more than for white women, giving birth can amount to a death sentence. African American women are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than are white women."

 — Harvard School of Public Health, America is Failing its Black Mothers

Racism affects every aspect of society, and healthcare is no exception. This is dangerous. This costs lives. This makes women of color feel afraid to seek medical care when they know that something doesn’t feel right, for the fear of their concerns being disregarded. We all deserve to feel heard and medically protected - especially during childbirth, when anxiety and fear of complications are already at an all-time high. 

It's so incredibly important to be your own advocate and have people that you trust there to support you. According to Alkeme Health, these are the key questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I being listened to?
  • Do I believe in my doctor’s ability to handle my situation?
  • Is it time to get a second opinion?

It’s time to empower ourselves and others to fight the longstanding racial inequalities in the healthcare system. We can not let it all fall on women of color. 

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