There’s an epidemic in our health care system that runs far deeper than COVID-19. It’s rooted in shocking experiments performed by white doctors on Black bodies, harmful myths that persist to this day and a lack of trust by Black Americans in the very people who are meant to keep them healthy. What can we do about it? It’s time for “Real Talk, Real Change.” This special edition of The Carlos Watson Show, produced by OZY and brought to you by Chevrolet, details real solutions from medical professionals, political leaders and more. It’s time to give our racially skewed health care system a long-overdue exam.
A registered nurse, Rep. Lauren Underwood knew she wanted to work on maternity issues in Congress when a classmate died after childbirth. “It was just shocking to me,” Underwood says. “She died of complications related to high blood pressure. That story is far too common.” Underwood stressed that while maternal mortality statistics are horrifying — with Black women more than twice as likely to die in childbirth as white women — for every death, “there are 70 near misses.” It’s a big reason she is championing the Momnibus Act, a package that includes funding for a more diverse perinatal workforce, improved data collection and attacking broader societal issues such as transportation.
One of the provisions in the Momnibus is named for Kira Johnson, who died after giving birth to her second son via C-section. Her husband, Charles Johnson, has become an advocate for improved maternal health, and he spoke movingly on “Real Talk, Real Change” about his fight. “Unfortunately, there was a lot of victim blaming,” he says. “They tried to assume that maybe Kira [had] some sort of heart issue that had gone undetected, which through the medical investigation we discovered that was not the case. Kira was failed by the system at the hospital, the procedures and protocols they threw out the window. Then, more than anything, Carlos, there was just a lack of compassion.”
This discussion is personal for Carlos, given his mother’s battle with kidney cancer. After he and his sisters moved their mom from Miami to the Bay Area to take better care of her, Carlos found her a “concierge doctor” who could give her more attention. But still, no one realized she had kidney cancer until it had reached a late stage. “A lot of the symptoms that my mom had, if someone was taking her seriously, were easily observable,” Carlos says. “And it is heartbreaking to think that when we thought we were taking better care of my mom, maybe in fact we were putting her in the hands of someone who was taking worse care.”
You cannot be what you cannot see. If we want to solve the problem of the lack of Black doctors — who only make up 5 percent of the profession — start with representation within medical schools. And getting more Black students through training can have a direct impact on patients, says Dr. Altha Stewart, who served as the first African American president of the American Psychiatric Association. As Stewart tells Watson about his mother, “Someone who was maybe more culturally in tune, more understanding of how an older Black woman might communicate her challenges and signs and symptoms, perhaps someone with a better understanding culturally might have come to a different conclusion.”
Dr. Jen Ashton, chief health and medical correspondent for ABC News, says the inequities must end: “All I can say is: Time’s up.” Instead of claiming not to see color, Ashton says, physicians should acknowledge that women of color are at a higher risk: “I think we should see color and we should prioritize care based on those risk factors.” In order to move forward, she acknowledges a need to rectify the trust gap between Black patients and doctors. “We know what the observed issues are,” she says. “Now we have to address them.”
Many Black women do not feel heard by medical institutions during their pregnancy and birth process, and they need someone to stick up for them. That’s why Latham Thomas founded Mama Glow, a New York-based company that pairs women with doulas. Thomas notes that the current system promotes “normalizing gaslighting, dismissiveness of violence and dominance in tone and language. It’s a normalization of racist and discriminatory language, power over stance, neglect, lack of consent.” It is a system that can be dangerous.