She was thirty-six years old, highly educated, and gainfully employed as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where her work focused on understanding how structural inequality, trauma, and violence made people sick. She had an amazing support system, and what some would call “good” health insurance.
Despite these advantages, three weeks after giving birth she collapsed and died. Her cause of death? Complications from high blood pressure.
Shalon Irving’s story is not uncommon. According to the CDC, black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes. This disparity is one of the reasons the maternal mortality rate in the US is so much higher than it is in other “affluent” countries.
How does this happen? Why does this happen? The unfortunate truth is that implicit and unconscious biases are embedded in our medical system. These biases can affect the quality of care received by people of color.
National Public Radio highlighted Shalon’s story and referenced other poor maternal outcomes involving black women. A black mother in Nebraska with a history of hypertension was unable to convince her doctors she was having a heart attack until it was too late. Another story involves a young black mother from Florida who was told her obesity was the cause of her breathing problems. As her lungs filled with fluids, she received a delayed diagnosis of heart failure.
I think of my own experiences during my two pregnancies as a single black woman – the assumption that I did not have health insurance because I was a single black mother, and the need to repeatedly remind my nurse practitioner that my first pregnancy was, indeed, my first pregnancy.
And I know my experiences are not unique.
Late last year, University of Cincinnati’s Institute for Policy Research conducted a survey to assess perceptions of racial disparities in Greater Cincinnati. The survey found that 21 percent of African-American adults in the region think they would have received better medical care if they belonged to a different race or ethnic group, compared with only 5 percent of whites. Among African-American adults in the region, 14 percent felt they had been judged unfairly or treated disrespectfully by a doctor or medical staff member because of their race or ethnicity. This compares with about 1 percent of white adults.
April is National Minority Health Month, giving us an opportunity to highlight the health disparities that persist among racial and ethnic minority populations and the ways in which legislation, policies, and programs can help advance health equity.
We have a responsibility to change this narrative in Greater Cincinnati. It will take all of us — health care providers, local health departments, business leaders, community leaders, educational systems and legislators — to first acknowledge these racial disparities and begin this journey toward health equity, where all people have the opportunity to reach their healthiest potential. And, where stories like Shalon’s are no longer commonplace.
Kiana R. Trabue, MPH is Executive Director of Gen-H for The Health Collaborative. In this role she provides leadership, strategic direction and oversight for Gen-H, which is focused on activating data driven solutions to reduce the impact of chronic disease and build a care system that’s healthy by design. At home, Kiana is a loving and devoted mother, daughter, sister, niece, cousin, and friend to many.