The disparities in health care for Black women

health care for black women

As coronavirus has made its way throughout the United States, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected by the virus compared to their white counterparts. For Black History Month, we’re focusing on specific health issues that affect the Black community, the disparities in medical care, and what Black women should look out for when receiving medical care. 

How diabetes, heart disease, and cancer affect Black women

Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are all more likely to affect Black women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women face higher instances of these conditions compared to white women:

These diseases arise more prominently in Black women due to myriad genetic and environmental factors, such as limited access to healthy, nutritious foods, high rates of stress, and less access to physical exercise options. 


Black women face higher pregnancy-related deaths

According to the CDC, Black women are “two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women,” which only increases with age. This can be attributed to many different issues, such as stress, diet, and the lack of access to prenatal care, which is important for decreasing the risk of preterm birth. A report done by the National Academy of Medicine echoes this by saying, “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people — even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.”

If we’ve learned anything from the highly publicized birth stories of Serena Williams and Beyoncé, we know that even with money, power, and status, racial inequities are still present when accessing medical care. In fact, the pregnancy-related mortality ratio for Black women with a college degree is 5.2 times that of their white counterparts.

To help combat these issues, many organizations are working to raise awareness of racial disparities in health care. Johnson and Johnson initiated the Equitable Maternal Health Coalition (EMHC) which works to support Medicaid/CHIP insurance for 12 months postpartum to help reduce mortality rates. Another great organization, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance that works to "advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice.”

Doctors underestimate pain as a result of patients' skin tones

Pain experienced by Black patients is regularly underestimated in the American health care system. A study conducted in 2016 showed that “black patients were significantly less likely than white patients to receive analgesics for extremity fractures in the emergency room...despite having similar self-reports of pain.”

In a study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, physicians were asked to report how much pain they thought their patients were experiencing. The results showed that physicians were more likely to underestimate the pain of Black patients relative to non-black patients.

Diseases dismissed due to color of skin

A study conducted by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that general medicine textbooks only have 4.5% of their images featuring dark skin. Often, pictures in medical textbooks don’t depict different skin tones, and the signs and symptoms of various diseases are usually skewed to those with lighter skin. This can lead to large disparities in diagnosing diseases properly as skin disorders will appear differently on a variety of skin tones.

What can I do about this?

If your care provider is not helping you adequately manage your health, it is important to find a primary care provider you can trust. Black Doctors USA is a comprehensive resource for finding and supporting Black doctors.

Additionally, resources like The Black Women’s Health Imperative, AARP SISTAS, and The Office of Minority Health provide well-researched and trustworthy information to continue learning about the disparities in healthcare for Black women.

Black women to follow tackling these issues

Many people are working on making health more equitable for Black communities. Here are some of our favorites to learn from.

Chrissy King (@iamchrissyking)

Chrissy King is a writer and speaker who advocates for equity in the wellness industry and founded the Body Liberation Project. She centers her work around changing the perception of what health looks like and how we can think about it more diversely. She also tackles the shame around Black bodies by teaching her community to embrace their body and health.

Dr. Tressie Cottom (@tressiemcphd)

Dr. Tressie Cottom is a writer and professor focused on technology and racism. In Dr. Cottom’s book of essays, Thick, she writes about medical racism, the ways she has been disbelieved by doctors, and her life as a Black woman and Black writer. It’s a great read!

Dr. Jessica Shepherd (@jessicashepherdmd)

Dr. Shepherd is an OB/GYN and women’s health expert and also the founder of Her Viewpoint, a women’s health forum that focuses on addressing taboo topics. She practices at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she serves as the Director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology.

Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins (@drlourdesd)

Dr. Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer psychotherapist and writer and in 2018 published Black LGBT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, the first professional book focused solely on the health of Black LGBTQ people in the United States.

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