By Paula Katinas and Emily Drooby
WINDSOR TERRACE — Discrimination has seeped into the examining room in the doctor’s office too, according to medical experts, who say the level of health care for women of color falls far below that of their white counterparts.
Women of color are often not listened to or respected by medical personnel, said Alecia Jones, a nurse and the chief executive director of New Beginnings Center of Hope, a Christian-based facility in Jamaica, Queens that assists pregnant women and new mothers.
“The level of respect varies according to your gender and your color,” said Jones, who is black, referring to the treatment patients receive at many hospitals and clinics.
The lack of respect is often found when expectant mothers seek medical care, Jones said.
“Black women who are pregnant have a lot of stress,” she said, adding that their needs are often dismissed.
The lack of respect isn’t just about hurt feelings over a doctor’s rudeness. If a patient’s needs are not being met, it has real and lasting implications, particularly in the field of maternity care.
These statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are eye-opening:
- Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
- The rate of pre-term birth is 50 percent higher for women of color than for white women.
- Black infants in the U.S. are twice as likely to die than white infants — a disparity that is wider than it was in 1850, before the end of slavery.
The problem isn’t being faced only by lower-income women of color, according to Joan Tropnas, an associate professor and director of the Health and Human Services Program at St. John’s University.
“It’s not just poor women. It’s across the board,” she said. “We have to look at systemic racism medical professionals may have when a woman of color enters into a hospital to deliver.”
In many cases, Tropnas says black women are pre-judged as soon as they walk in the door by medical professionals who think they are all alike.
New York State Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte had a deeply painful personal experience with racial injustice in her health care. She suffered the heartbreaking loss of her infant son, Jonah Bichotte Cowan, in 2016 after she says a hospital refused to treat her when she went into pre-term labor at 22 weeks. Doctors told her the hospital’s policy would not allow them to treat her before the 23-week mark of her pregnancy because health insurance would not cover the costs.
“They gave me either two options: Either terminate my pregnancy or leave,” she said, adding that she did not want to terminate the pregnancy.
Even more insulting to Bichotte was that “they told me I had to leave the room because they needed the room for another patient.”
Bichotte, a Haitian-American, is convinced she was given such degrading treatment because she is black.
“Racial disparities are clear when it comes to maternal health care,” she said.
A week later, she gave birth to Jonah. The infant lived for only a few hours.
Bichotte, a Democrat representing Flatbush, introduced a bill — the Jonah Bichotte Cowan Law — on July 23 that would require hospitals to inform expectant mothers if they are going into pre-term labor. The legislation would also require hospitals to provide care to women experiencing high-risk pregnancies.
The bill was passed by the State Assembly and Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign it into law.
Tropnas said that while enacting new laws is a step in the right direction, it isn’t the only answer.
“There’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Laws are always good to have on the books,” she said, but “you have to work at two levels.”
Raising people’s consciousness about hidden racial prejudices is important, Tropnas said: “If we are aware of them, we can work to diminish them.”
Health care providers are also working on solutions at the grassroots level. One way is to foster a better relationship between the expectant mother and her health care provider.
New Beginnings Center of Hope is designed to look like a warm, inviting health spa, instead of a medical clinic, and clients are treated with respect, according to Jones.
“When women come in, they are cared for and they are heard,” she said. Clients are not told what to do but are offered suggestions so that they can make informed decisions about their pregnancies.
The spotlight on racial discrepancies in maternity care is happening at the same time the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping the country.
Tropnas believes they fall under the same umbrella and added that the medical treatment of women of color is also part of a broader question: “What is the value of black life in America at this point in time?”
She recalled when she worked as an associate director of nursing at a hospital, being told by a doctor that she was “too fat” while undergoing cancer treatments.
“I found that very shocking. I don’t think that another associate director of nursing who was white would have been told that,” she said.