Racial Bias and Black Maternal Health: ‘Sometimes people will judge you as soon as you walk in the door’

Updated: Apr. 16, 2019 at 8:12 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Did you know that nearly a quarter of black women have reported feeling discriminated against when going to the doctor? Some 22 percent according to a report by the National Partnership for Women and Mothers.

While the history of racial bias in medicine dates back more than a century in the U.S., it’s only recently begun to be seen as a contributing factor to why the black maternal mortality rate is three to four times higher than that of white women.

That’s why 24 year-old Nicole Freeman, who is expecting her first child this summer chose Arboretum Obstetrics and Gynecology, an all-black woman practice in southeast Charlotte.

“I think who better relates than someone of your color,” Freeman said. “And who’s been able to go through that with you and knows what you’re going through. It’s just different versus a white woman going through what I’m going through.”

It’s a sentiment Dr. Octavia Cannon, a 20-year veteran in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, admits she hears often. “

“I hear that a lot,” Dr. Cannon said. “But I do take pride in the fact that we are - we try to be all things to all women but we certainly have a kinship for women of color.”

But it's more than a kinship. As a Black mother, having a doctor who looks like you could be the lifeline that keeps you alive.

Nothing protects black women from dying in pregnancy in childbirth at a rate of nearly four times that of white women. Not education. Not income. Not even celebrity status-- given the stories of Serena and Beyonce’s harrowing childbirth-related complications.

"So either they're going to ignore things you think are serious and they really are serious based on virtually on the color of your skin - or they're going to assume that you're going to be an hypochondriac or they're going to assume that you don't care about your family because of your race," Dr. Cannon said.

And racial bias does play a role. In 2017, the executive board of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology (ACOG) acknowledging that in its statement of policy that medicine is “beset with implicit and explicit racial bias” and that “...the field of obstetrics and gynecology, has engaged in practices that were very harmful to women of color.”

The ACOG went on to say “the racial and ethnic disparities in women’s health cannot be reversed without addressing racial bias, both implicit and explicit. We recognize that structural and institutional racism contribute to and exacerbate these biases, which further marginalize women of color in the health care system.”

You can read the ACOG’s statement of policy in its entirety here.

Biases that Dr. Cannon as well as her partners, Dr. Sophia Paige and Dr. Mala Freeman-Kwaku fight against on the front lines of Black maternal healthcare every day.

“We might get into the stigma of the angry black woman, you know ‘why does she have such an attitude?’,“ Dr. Cannon said. “Well sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s fear. Many times you will find patients are angry or upset or even they may not be angry or upset - they come across that way. But it’s often fear. Fear of the unknown or uncertainty or discomfort or pain or worry.”

That fear of being misunderstood - and it subsequently affecting the quality care - is what led Nicole to seek out Dr. Cannon.

“So I think having someone that knows you’re not just trying to have an attitude I’m just - this is how I feel,” she explained. “But I feel like we get that stigma so much that it just helps to have another Black woman to talk to because they just better understand you being another Black woman. She’s been amazing and very patient and very attentive to me.”

An understanding Dr. Mala Freeman-Kawku, believes physicians not of color don't prioritize enough.

"When your patients complain of things that you have to understand that, you know, you want to take all of your patients complaints seriously but especially when you know this particular group often has poor outcomes so that you want to be extra careful in taking some of their concerns," she said. “I think you have to know and be able to realize that this a real issue. It's not something that's imaginary. It's something that's been well documented.”

Concerns Nicole can be assured are being heard at every visit so she's free to focus on the joy this special time brings. “I’m really excited,” she said, smiling. “He's really, really active.”

To read more stories from my Black Maternal Health series, go to www.wbtv.com/community/black-maternal-health/.

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