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Groups work to fix racial disparity in maternity care

Posted at 4:22 PM, May 12, 2021

Cheron Phillips is a proud mother of four beautiful children. But bringing those children into the world was no small task.

Phillips says her baby went through a lot of stress due to her not being well. The stress led to hypertension.

Her first baby was born prematurely. Her second was delivered by C-section.

Despite the difficult pregnancies, Phillips was thrilled to bring two more children into the world. She worked to lower her hypertension. Yet, doctors insisted on two more C-sections.

Throughout each pregnancy, she felt an overwhelming sense of worry and distrust that she might not be getting the best care possible for her baby from the health care system.

“At a population level, the risk of a Black woman dying from a childbirth-related cause is three to four times higher than if you’re white, so people have every right to be mortified and scared,” said Dr. Ebony Carter, an obstetrician with the Washington University School of Medicine.

CDC statistics from 2020 show per 100,000 babies born alive, there are 13 deaths among white women. Among Black women, that number is more than triple, with 42.4 deaths.

When it comes to maternal mortality rates among 11 developed countries, the United States ranks last.

Dr. Carter is both a mother and physician. She says she understands why people of color face great health challenges.

“If this is going to happen to women who are rich and famous like Serena Williams and Beyonce, then what is going to happen to me,” Dr. Carter said.

Dr. Carter adds it’s a distrust of the system shared by many people of color.

“They don’t trust us for good reason, because there are past and present injustices going back to Tuskegee where people were experimented on,” she explained.

The unethical Tuskegee experiment involved doctors lying to men about treating them for syphilis. Even though it was exposed more than 50 years ago, the generational mistrust continues.

“I’m not going to speak for all Black people, but let me just say, when you go to the doctor, you don’t say everything because it brings social workers and social workers lead to people being removed. It’s the stigma. We don’t know if it’s true or not,” Phillips stated.

Phillips knew she had to do something. She decided to help other moms.

Both Phillips and Dr. Carter play key roles in a multi-hospital partnership called EleVATE. While Philips focuses on telling her story and empowering other moms, Dr. Carter focuses on educating other physicians.

Women in the same gestational age get all of their care in a group space. However, a main focus is on breaking down bias among doctors.

“I have white colleagues who were very upset saying, ‘Why is everyone accusing me of being racist? I’m not racist. I try really hard to take really good care of patients,’ and I think by the time we got to the end of it, we discovered we’re all racist,” said Dr. Carter. “No matter if you’re white, Black, blue, purple, we’re all human beings who come to the table with the baggage with the prior stuff that’s happened in our lives. Good, bad, or indifferent, it is what is, but what are you doing to do about it?”

Venicia Gray, with the National Partnership for Women and Families, says as a Black woman herself, who had a preterm child, it was so terrifying to be in the maternal and infant space and know some of these really scary inequities and birth potential birth outcomes.

“We've seen studies over time that have shown that medical students have this weird belief that Black people can tolerate higher levels of pain or they have literally thicker skin than others,” Gray said.

While EleVATE works on physician education and mother empowerment, the National Partnership works on policy.

“We are laser-focused on ensuring that the Black Maternal Health Act or the Omnibus Act is passed,” Gray said.

The Democrat-sponsored legislation focuses on money for housing, expanding internet access so moms can use telehealth, and educating key community organizations that ultimately promote equity.

“We don’t want to keep hearing these terrible data points of Black women being four times more likely to die simply for no other reason than that they are a Black person. That’s unacceptable,” Gray said.

It’s a problem this group of women is pushing to change.