Celebrating Black History Month 2021
In celebration of Black History Month, the February Newsletter explores how Community Conversations works to combat anti-Blackness in health and medicine.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
CC Confronts Past and Continuing Injustices
Every day, Black women are subjected to structural racism that bars access to health resources and directly, negatively, impacts their health outcomes and the health outcomes of their families. These barriers, and the amplified effects of the pain and suffering they cause, are made even more clear under COVID-19 as Black women are disproportionately impacted as a result of structural racism. For over 13 years, CC has grown our sisterhood and dedicated ourselves to building an intergenerational health community by and for Black women, working to alleviate structural barriers that lead to adverse health outcomes for Black families.
Systemic racism impacts multiple areas of Black women's health: Black women have one of the highest maternal morbidity and mortality rates and they have the highest Cesarean section rates (Tangel, 2018). Breast cancer screening recommendations are developed with data primarily from Caucasian women and have contributed to disparities in breast cancer treatment and outcomes among Black women (Blau, 2019).This disparity is worsened by “insufficient screening, poor follow-up of abnormal screening tests, and nonadherence to guideline-based treatments” at the provider level (Blackman, 2006). Studies have demonstrated that controlling for education and income does not protect against health disparities and negative outcomes faced by Black women (Williams, 2016). This healthcare inequity has been difficult to combat especially given the underlying distrust the Black community has towards the US healthcare system.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is one of many examples of how the medical field has abused Black people for the benefit of medical treatments for white people. The memory of these abuses lives on today, understandably directly impacting Black people’s trust in the medical field and reception of new trials like the COVID-19 vaccine. This mistrust, justifiably rooted in long-standing histories of racist medical practices, is exacerbated by the underrepresentation of Black doctors in the physician workforce (5%) (Scharff, 2015; Association of American Medical Colleges, 2019).
During the study, researchers from the federal government claimed to be providing treatment to Black men for what they called, “bad blood” but were in fact withholding treatment for syphilis (CDC, 2020). They continued to do so 27 years after penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis (Stanford University, 2020). Many of these men developed tertiary syphilis including damage to the nervous system (CDC, 2020).
This study led to significant distrust in the Black community that continues to reverberate today. This atmosphere of distrust is a fundamental part of why the Black community is hesitant to accept the newly developed COVID-19 vaccine. Racism in the medical field has tangible, measurable effects on the health of Black people. Considering the context of medical treatment and research for Black people it is understandable why there is a need for brave spaces like CC where community members can discuss their barriers to seeking healthcare and heal from their collective trauma.
The healthcare system has failed to meet the needs of Black women. Black women are often hypersexualized by the health community and their experience of pain or illness is often minimized (Ray, 2019). The recent death of Susan Moore, a Black female physician, highlights the importance of giving voice to Black women. Her efforts to advocate for herself were described as “intimidating” and despite her education and socioeconomic status, she died of COVID-19 two weeks after discharge from a local hospital.
In the face of this historic and continuing oppression, CC explores ways to move forward, together. Check out some of our work and come join the conversation.
Community Conversations: Sister to Sister (CC) is a grassroots, women run and Cambridge based organization dedicated to supporting the health and wellbeing of Black women. We began in Simply Erinn's Unisex Hair Salon eleven years ago and have grown into a community of 1040+ members with three main operations: creating a health community led by and for Black women, delivering monthly health programming, and leading workforce development both for aspiring Black women health professionals and those already practicing in healthcare.
We fill major gaps in the community:
Health Education: CC began as a monthly gathering to educate Black women about their health. Too often, common health information is prepared for a primarily Caucasian audience without addressing the nuances important to women of color. CC provides health literacy exposure as well as training in utilizing commonly available tools to enhance care during medical encounters.
Health Communities: CC bring brings together hundreds of Black women (including 240+ multidisciplinary faculty and community members with invaluable learned experience) to engage in open and honest monthly dialogues out of Simply Erinn's Unisex Hair Salon. We provide a unique, safe and relaxed space where our members share medical information and the ways they’ve overcome barriers to health.
Referral Network: Physician-patient racial concordance has been shown to increase patient satisfaction, participation with care, and uptake of screening recommendations (Mead, 2015). Black women are under-represented in the physician workforce as such, it is unlikely that many of the women in CC would encounter a Black physician on their health journey were it not for their participation in CC. The space CC creates gives our participants access to advanced care providers who look like them which can revolutionize their care. In these settings they have the experience of being fully seen and heard by their provider and are often more able to participate in their care.
Workforce Development: There’s a high turnover of Black academic physicians in the metro Boston region influenced by lack of direct connection to the underserved communities in the area. Faculty involvement with CC is a critical bridge to addressing this need and supports faculty retention and improved job satisfaction. Our intern/fellow program also serves to help aspiring healthcare professionals develop the skills and experiences necessary to be leaders in their fields.
Spotlighting the Vetting Tool, an Intern Project
As part of Community Conversations’ commitment to Workforce Development initiatives that support the next generation of health professionals, CC interns develop projects to meet an identified need. Here is Grace’s project:
Grace has been working on an online tool to encourage our members in their capacity to be critical consumers of health information. Starting with a news report, scientific study, or something you saw or heard online or in passing, the tool starts where you are and guides you through a multi-step process of understanding the content, how well it is supported by evidence, and its applicability to you and your loved ones.
Worried about avoiding misinformation in the age of #fakenews?
This vetting tool will walk you through the steps of critically assessing health information, including highlighting red flags.
Want to build more of a partnership with your healthcare provider?
You can share with your provider a printout that summarizes your answers to the guided reading of the health source, in addition to a customized compilation of questions you want to remember to ask.
Looking for a way to spark a family conversation about health?
The tool is the perfect starting point: Ask about family history, introduce a current health concern, get a discussion going about diagnosis and treatment options, or simply share what you’ve learned about a health condition.
Interested in learning more about [insert health topic here]*?
The tool can guide you to reputable and accessible resources that are related to the source you vet.
*diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, healthy aging, reproductive health, etc
This project is ongoing, and we intend for there to be opportunities for Community Conversations members to get involved in this exciting work. If you would be interested in joining a focus group to test out the vetting tool in March, please leave your name and contact information here.
The Boston area is home to a wealth of healthcare institutions and resources. Despite the variety of options, Black women in particular face barriers to equitable health and are underserved by the city's healthcare system. Medical racism and physicians' implicit biases create an environment that does not lend itself to open communication between provider and patient. Marginalized patients who feel their voice is not hear in the doctor's office feel less comfortable raising questions or comments about health information relevant to them, like risk factors, screenings, or treatments they may have heard of elsewhere; already facing worse health outcomes, Black women cannot afford feeling as though they do not have a voice in the doctor's office.
Boston medical institutions have begun reckoning with medical discrimination, but gaps persist. A grassroots, community-based approach is in need. The monthly conversations at CC are an excellent resource, connecting Black women with professionals who look like them and have their interests at heart. Though members value the health community provided by CC, they cannot turn to that community each time, nor can they bring faculty members' shared knowledge and expertise with them to their next medical appointment. The vetting tool aims to be part of the solution; indicate your interest in getting involved in this exciting project today!
Sista, I'm With Ya
The switch to online programming was difficult on our community. In January of 2021, to break down barriers to connecting virtually, CC officially launched our community engagement pilot Sista I’m With Ya (SIWY)! SIWY is designed to bring CC’s membership together in a brave, relaxed, and fun space for forging connections and finding belonging. During our monthly meetings we uplift each other’s minds, bodies, and spirits. You are invited to our next SIWY gathering on March 12 at 6:30pm. We’re excited to welcome you into this space full of healing and love!