In honor of Women’s History Month, which begins on the first Tuesday of every March, Stony Brook University hosted a variety of events that spotlighted and celebrated women’s voices and empowerment.
This year’s theme was #BreakTheBias, which was adopted from International Women’s Day. It commemorated the celebration by uplifting women in various sectors that look to promote inclusion and equality within the workplace and beyond.
Women’s History Month — which began as Women’s History Week as a local celebration in Santa Rosa, California — was first held in 1978. The week of March 8 was selected to coincide with International Women’s Day. Women’s groups pushed for the national recognition of the celebration until February 1980, when it was declared by Presidential Proclamation as Women’s History Week. It wasn’t until 1987 that Congress passed Public Law 100-9, which made March Women’s History Month.
In addition to #BreakTheBias, the University also celebrated the National Women’s History Month theme “Promoting Healing and Promoting Health.” On March 23, the Black and Latino Alumni Network presented a conversation on health care bias concerns for women of color and the disparity for Black and Latinx women in healthcare.
The topic of health disparity in regards to women of color persists as numbers remain a cause for concern. According to the National Institute of Health, maternal mortality rates for non-Hispanic Black women are three to four times the maternal mortality rates of non-Hispanic white women. Black women are also five times more likely to die from pregnancy-related cardiomyopathy and blood pressure disorders, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
Promoting health equity for women of color comes in an array of strategies. Looking into the day-to-day protocols for patients, in regards to issues of morbidity and mortality, some hospitals have initiated programs for additional care.
“At New York City Health and Hospitals, we just started a program that’s focused on maternal morbidity and mortality of Black women, and that program will be spread throughout the system this year. That’s a program where Black women are provided doulas and additional monitoring,” Dr. Natalia Cineas, senior vice president, chief nursing executive and chair of the Equity and Access Council for NYC Health and Hospitals, said.
Critical thinking was also a matter of discussion during the panel when dealing with the health of a patient came up, as colliding opinions between staff can make issues get lost in the mix, especially between doctors and nurses.
“So we’re doing a lot to empower nurses to speak up to say something, and to educate them about the rhythms that a patient comes in on, or with, I should say,” Cineas said. “So essentially, we’re completely revamping the women’s health curriculum throughout the system for nursing.”
The structural changes should focus on individuals treating patients. At New York City Health and Hospitals, patients are cared for in over 180 languages. The integration of new training and curriculums in healthcare is imperative to ensure things that may go unseen in routine visits are not overlooked.
Dr. Kaedrea Jackson, medical director and associate professor at Mount Sinai, shared that from their patient experience surveys, there is a noticeable lack of input from people of color. The feedback is imperative in bringing up any concerns; “we want them to feel that it’s okay. Tell us what you think of us. We want to hear and we’re not hearing their voice. And we have to definitely give them a voice,” Jackson said.
Considering the importance of patient feedback is also a newer strategy being adapted to fix systemic errors.
A study published in the National Institutes of Health found that patient feedback appeared to be positive on medical care and performance, but like the root issue itself, needs to work concurrently with the other factors fighting internal system issues.
“It’s not just the training that individuals need to get, but ensuring that we are reporting on what the facts are, what the truth is in terms of the disparities and then also making sure we’re hearing from our patients and making sure that their voices are heard; are we addressing their needs? Are we addressing the community?” Jackson said.
Other than addressing patient feedback and implementing additional care, there are also less tangibly noticed, but equally important issues like implicit bias within the workplace.
“If individuals come in with their preconceived notions, or the way they were raised, or whatever that is, we’re not going to make an impact. And so it’s, again, doing introspection and understanding who you are, and how do you then treat one another in the workplace?” Cineas said.
A study reported in the U.S. News and World Report found that over the past 120 years, the percentage of U.S. doctors who are Black has barely risen. The analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 1900 to 2018 accounted for about 150,000 physicians — 3,300 of whom were Black male physicians, and 1,600 Black female physicians.
Cineas said she recently read a journal article that talked about Black people getting better care if their physicians are Black. “So if there are not enough Black physicians, if they’re not enough individuals or employees that mirror the patients they serve, that’s a problem,” she said. “But I think that goes for all populations, you know, and it goes hand in hand with the number of individuals in executive positions, because they again dictate the internal policies of the workplace.”
Representation is a vital matter in what changes fundamentally and when.
“I think it’s who’s been in power, who’s doing the deciding [that also affects the care patients receive]. When you think about health care, It’s not just the doctors, the nurses or the individuals in the hospital, but it’s also the pharmaceutical companies, the insurance companies and what’s their representation level? Are they trying hard to ensure equity?” Jackson said.
The question is, are these companies thinking of minorities when considering who their products have been geared towards in history, most notably white men?
Dr. Cineas finds that this interconnects with distrust seen with things such as the COVID-19 vaccine. Speaking on a program that involved education and information on pilot studies and trials of the vaccine, this direct show of the facts surpassed distrust.
“Through education, she was able to make her decision on whether to be vaccinated [or] unvaccinated is the right answer, but again, having the education to then make that choice, and that’s missing in our community,” Cineas said. “So I think that going back to history, we still see the remnants and the impact of it today.”