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The Black Maternal Health Crisis in America: Unveiling the Role of Medical Racism

Written by: Jordan Roby



Time to read min

In the land of the free and home of the brave, a stark, often overlooked health disparity persists: black women in the United States face significantly higher risks related to pregnancy and childbirth compared to their white counterparts. As per data available till September 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that black women were three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. The alarming disparity in maternal mortality transcends age, education levels, and income brackets. A crucial factor contributing to this health crisis is medical racism, an insidious influence within our healthcare system.

Medical Racism: A Deep-Seated Malaise

Medical racism encompasses systematic and interpersonal bias and discrimination within healthcare settings, which disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority groups. The term captures a gamut of disparities, from differential treatment by healthcare providers to systemic shortcomings in the quality and accessibility of care. Its role in the black maternal mortality rate is profound and multifaceted.

"One key manifestation of medical racism is the bias in pain assessment and treatment. "

The Unseen Bias: Underestimating Pain

One key manifestation of medical racism is the bias in pain assessment and treatment. A wealth of studies suggest that healthcare providers often underestimate the pain of black patients due to implicit biases. This unconscious bias significantly impacts black mothers, leading to insufficient pain management during childbirth, inadequate postpartum care, and the potential for delayed or missed diagnoses of serious complications. The rippling effect of this misperception extends beyond the immediate physical discomfort, contributing to the heightened mortality rate among black mothers.

Dr talking to patient holding a clipboard
image from Canva

Accessibility and Quality of Care: The Silent Disparity

Medical racism also manifests in the lack of access to quality prenatal and postnatal care for black women. Socio-economic factors, including income and residential segregation, create barriers to comprehensive healthcare services. The effect is a continuum of poor health outcomes for black mothers, starting from the lack of adequate prenatal care through to insufficient postnatal support.

The Burden of Stress and "Weathering"

The persistent stress of experiencing medical racism and discrimination, often referred to as "weathering," significantly influences black maternal health. This continuous exposure to stress initiates physiological changes that result in higher rates of chronic disease and increased risk for poor maternal outcomes. The impact of "weathering" is not just psychological; it tangibly exacerbates the health disparities observed in black mothers.

Woman touching her forehead
Image from: Liza Summer

Communication Barriers and Disrespect: Straining the Trust

Poor communication and a lack of respect between healthcare providers and black patients, another manifestation of medical racism, lead to a distrust in the healthcare system. These interpersonal breaches can dissuade black women from seeking timely care or following medical advice, ultimately widening the maternal health disparity chasm.

Structural and Institutional Racism: The System Against Black Mothers

Medical racism extends beyond individual biases and practices to involve policies and practices within healthcare and other institutions that systematically disadvantage black women. This includes the inadequate funding of hospitals that primarily serve black communities, which invariably leads to lower quality care and worse health outcomes.

The Way Forward: Combating Medical Racism

Addressing the black maternal health crisis requires an all-out assault on medical racism. It necessitates policy changes that ensure equal access to quality care, bias training for healthcare providers to eradicate implicit and explicit biases, and most importantly, amplifying the voices and experiences of black women in healthcare decision-making.

The black maternal health crisis in America is a deeply entrenched issue. The road to equality is long, and the first step is acknowledging the significant role medical racism plays in these disparities.