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In today’s climate, advocacy is a word that is well aligned with other words like life threatening, quality of life and death.  Especially when it comes to healthcare. The trust so easily afforded doctors now sits with skepticism, particularly among women of color. 

The Mary J. Harris Foundation, a partner of CIC hosted the forum “Make Our Voices Heard: Our Fight For Healthcare” to bring to light the disparities that women of color face in the American healthcare system that degrade their quality of care and erode their quality of life.

It’s clear that women of color don’t feel seen or heard in a western society where doctors are more excited to chase the symptom than treat the person.

Held at CIC One Broadway, this event saw women of color sitting together to discuss the challenges they faced in the vulnerable atmosphere of the examination room with nothing more than a thin hospital gown between them and industry backed MDs.  Asian-American, African-American, Middle Eastern American and Latin American women, some of whom were doctors, nurses, thought leaders and family caretakers shared their frustrations and brainstormed solutions, including our own Hubber Chien-Chi Huang, the Executive Director of Asian Women for Health and one of the forum’s panelists.

Social conditioning was readily identified as part of the problem.  Women of color are expected to suffer silently and keep their head down, a mode of survival especially for those undocumented. African-American women are less likely to be believed by physicians and more likely to die in childbirth three to four times than any other race. Asian-American women, a group most effected by cancer, have to fight barriers like access to cancer screenings and cultural and linguistic tailored information available to them. Latin-American and Hispanic women are less likely to receive regular mammograms and pap smears and are more likely to be uninsured. Middle Eastern-American women have been historically understudied and lack proper documentation.

How can doctors make the best prognosis when the information and research they rely on is based on the white population alone?

There’s also the personal bias many older women of color struggle with that leans towards “white as right and good” but they often end up being pushed aside by the medical establishment, forcing their children to be their voice.  But how can uninformed voices speak up? How can choices be made when translators are not proficient in medical terminology? How can doctors make the best prognosis when the information and research they rely on is based on the white population alone?

Bianca Clark, the founder and president of the Mary J. Harris Foundation exhorted the roundtable to make their voices heard by aiming for the ears of medical establishments’ leaders.  Other panelists and participants suggested the use of technology to map out how doctors write their diagnosis with different groups and genders where algorithms can reveal any diagnosis bias. Such an approach would also allow the opportunity to get to doctors early in their practice and bring them on board as allies to communities of color. 

Unfortunately, those in attendance were only people of color. An opportunity lost to hear the perspectives and frustrations from white medical professionals.  For those on the patient side of the stethoscope, the burden is clear and rests on the affected community to plant the seed of knowledge through transparency and sharing of experiences to eliminate shame, ignorance and fear.