Disparities in Maternal Health Are Rooted in "Medical Apartheid"

The 2021 ESSENCE Festival of Culture’s Wealth & Power experience saw ESSENCE Lifestyle Editor Victoria Uwumargogie moderate a conversation between Sr. Medical Dr. Health of Women at Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Robyn Jones, and Youtube influencer Rita Onox about the state of Maternal Health for Black women.

For more of everything you missed during the 2021 ESSENCE Festival of Culture Wealth & Power experience, click HERE.

During the segment, which was presented by Johnson & Johnson, the three discussed what causes health disparities within the Black community, why Black women are more at risk than white women as it pertains to pregnancy-related deaths, and tips on how Black women can stand up to doctors who dismiss their concerns. 

Jones kicked off the conversation by discussing health disparities in the Black community. “Health disparities are a higher burden of illness, of injury, of disability and of death, and so we know health disparities are related to the social determinants of health…where we live, where we work, where we age, where we’re born and where we grow. So, it’s a number of variables where all of those impact our health,” Jones said. 

Jones went on to say it’s important that we understand the history of what she calls “medical apartheid” in the U.S. “…we as Black people have been treated in the medical health care system since we were brought here. The legacy is that certainly during slavery, we were not treated at all unless we were needed to do work. Even then, the treatment was insufficient because remember supposedly that we don’t feel pain the same way. Supposedly we don’t care the same way and supposedly we don’t care for ourselves the same way and I say supposedly because that’s blaming the victim.”

Uwumargogie asked Jones to discuss health disparities and the effects it has on pregnant women in the Black community. 

“According to the CDC we are not just more likely to die during pregnancy, in general our lifespans may be shortened because of a number of reasons that impact our health,” Jones said. 

Onyx agreed with Jones and gave a first-hand account of the challenges she faced while giving birth to her fourth child. 

“During the surgery I not only needed 5 bags of blood, I needed bladder reconstruction surgery. After the surgery I was wheeled to the recovery room where I was given my son to hold during the first time. Then I passed out. Luckily my husband was there to grab my son and when I woke up, I knew something was very wrong. I alerted the staff and I told them ‘I do not feel right, my heart is racing, I’m sure of breath and I feel extremely weak’. They brushed off my concerns and told me I just need to get up and walk,” Onyx said. 

Jones said after a couple of days her specialist came into her room to check on her “and he immediately saw me, saw my chart, saw my lab work and immediately ordered four more bags of blood…He reprimanded the staff for ignoring my concerns, for ignoring even the clinical signs and symptoms and it left me traumatized because I was treated with a lack of professionalism, empathy and respect.”

Jones said the Black community ultimately experiences disparities within the medical field due to “systemic racism and the implicit and conscious biases that exist.”  

Check out the video above to hear the full conversation.

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