The U.S. medical community and policymakers have plenty of work to do in order to close the gaps in poor health outcomes for Black women. But what can you do on an individual level to help protect yourself and your reproductive health?
As a Black woman, health professional, and mom of two, I've spent my fair share of time within the health system for multiple reasons. Here are a few tips that have helped me and many other Black women along our journeys. The beauty of these is that they can also be helpful tools to women of any race, ethnicity, or cultural background.
Always research your healthcare providers.
It's a solid idea to do some digging on your healthcare providers before you decide to become their patient. If you have a network of trusted women in your area, feel free to ask for recommendations directly, but you can also leverage online groups and websites like HealthGrades to do the same. Everyone's best friend, Google, is a great tool to help you find reviews and ratings for different care providers and the facilities where they work.
When possible, interview potential healthcare providers.
Before making an appointment with a new provider, find out if you can arrange a time to call and speak with the provider or their assistant. Now in my experience, this isn't always practical for the provider because of time limitations or issues of payment. If it's not an option, use your first visit as a time to connect and see if you vibe with the provider. Ask straight-to-the-point questions about their professional opinions, preferences, and trends and see if they align with yours. If they don't, consider going back to the drawing board and finding a different provider.
Be direct and specific.
It's easy to feel intimidated by medical professionals, but there's no need to be. We're people too! If you have questions or concerns, be confident in your right to ask those questions and address those concerns. Do so clearly and directly to get your point across. Miscommunication is more likely if both parties aren't crystal clear about what's being discussed.
Build a supportive healthcare team.
Remember that your healthcare team doesn't only consist of you and your doctor. Depending on where you stand in your reproductive health journey, you may have other members on your health and wellness team like doulas, midwives, obstetricians, gynecologists, fertility specialists, chiropractors, and more. Populate your team with professionals who understand you and genuinely care about your well-being.
But don't just stop at health professionals. Dr. Alisha Liggett, a family medicine physician and wellness coach, offers this perspective: "Since wellness incorporates the health of your mind, body, and spirit, you may want to consider incorporating members into your health care team that will encourage you to stay healthy as a whole person. Consider putting the person who is most influential in your health care decisions at the center. This may include your spiritual advisor, an accountability partner, psychotherapist, nutritionist, naturopath, fitness trainer or workout buddy, or even a trusted, outspoken friend."
When you can, take a partner with you to medical visits.
My husband wasn't always able to attend prenatal visits with me, but when he was, I felt noticeably more relaxed. Remember that you can build a supportive network around you, including partners, extended family, close friends, or children. When possible, take someone from that network with you to medical visits.
This may prove a bit difficult at the moment, depending on the facility's rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you've got to attend appointments solo, find out if you can have someone on speaker phone or video chat so that they can still be present with you. This person can offer you with moral support, remember questions you may have forgotten to ask, or take detailed notes that you can refer to later.
Don't be afraid to seek a second opinion.
If you encounter a scenario where your and your care provider's opinions differ, remember that you have the right to seek opinions from other care providers. Don't think of getting a second opinion as being offensive to your provider. Your health is the number one priority, and sometimes that means getting multiple perspectives. It's also perfectly okay to be upfront about the fact that you're seeking a professional opinion elsewhere.
Recognize the time for courtesy and the time for firm self-advocacy.
I'm from the South, where manners, hospitality, and "being a good girl" were ingrained in me from a young age. As an adult though, I recognize that some situations call for firm and assertive self-advocacy. Rather than being concerned about how you come across or whether you're being "nice," consider whether you are being heard, listened to, and respected. Never feel bad for demanding that respect. If you feel as though your valid concern is not being taken seriously, even after having a conversation with your provider, escalate your concern to someone higher up the ladder. And continue to do so until you feel you have received adequate care.
As we close out this series, I leave you with an action item you can take part in even if you aren't actively navigating the health system at this time. Many cities and states have local groups you can join to advocate for improvement in Black women's health. Consider engaging with groups like these in your community. Linking up with these organizations can provide you with a network of people in your own backyard that you can use for recommendations, referrals, support, and camaraderie.
Though we have quite a way to go in terms of protecting Black women, we can also do our part to try to counteract the reproductive health inequities we are currently facing.