Health sciences dialogue brings attention to racism in maternal healthcare

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 10:06pm

Audience members discuss maternal health equity at a panel and round table discussion hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. Health Sciences Program at the Nursing School Wednesday evening.

Audience members discuss maternal health equity at a panel and round table discussion hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. Health Sciences Program at the Nursing School Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

The 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Health Sciences Lecture and Community Dialogue commenced this Wednesday at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. Entitled “Disparities Dialogue on Maternal Health and Care: Being a Black Woman Giving Birth in the U.S.: A Maternal Health Crisis,” the event focused on inequity in maternal healthcare.

Approximately 100 people attended the event, including students, who made up a majority of the attendees, as well as faculty, staff, alums and community members. The discussion was part of a series of held by the Martin Luther King Jr. Health Sciences Program with the purpose of improving equity in healthcare.

Dr. Lenette Jones, assistant professor at the School of Nursing and one of the organizers of the event, said she hoped the conversation would provide a space for students to think critically with experts.

“I think for all the MLK events we had this year, we really had in mind the students,” Jones said. “Students as future leaders — whether they’re in healthcare professions or not — we really wanted them to critically think about some of the issues that we’re facing in the world in general and what you would do about it.”

The dialogue began with an expert panel that included nurses, obstetrician-gynecologists, professors and researchers interested in the topic.

The panelists discussed what they believe to be the key issues facing Black women in prenatal healthcare in response to three articles that were recommended reading before the event: Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis, America is Failing its Black Mothers and What States Aren’t Doing to Save New Mothers’ Lives.

Charisse Marie Loder, a clinical lecturer at Michigan Medicine, summarized the discrimination Black women face in health care due to implicit racism.

“All of the readings that were assigned today really focus on issues such as poor prenatal care, poor access to care, and what really disturbs me is the relationships between the providers and the patients that were described,” Loder said. “Often concerns were tossed aside or obvious medical problems or vital sign abnormalities were ignored, and that’s a result of implicit bias or racism, and I think that’s something that we need to address in our training and work on reducing that as much as possible.”

Following the first panel, attendees split into groups surrounding facilitators seated around the room and responded to the ideas put forth by the panelists. Students and alumni from a variety of disciplines within medicine shared their responses and proposed ideas regarding how to fight inequity.

Kinesiology senior Brianna Kennedy said she was invited to the event after attending a previous Martin Luther King Jr. symposium and was interested in the topic because she is studying both athletic training and Afroamerican and African studies.

“It is a bridging gap between my major and minor in a way, with race and health, so it’s an interesting event to come to,” Kennedy said.

The second group of panelists then shared their own thoughts on issues of racism in healthcare.

Jessica Fladger, a certified nurse midwife, stressed the importance of healthcare providers acknowledging their own internal biases.

“I think the problem in our society is when we think about racism we think about the Ku Klux Klan, we think about obvious implications of racism, and we don’t think about our own internal biases and how we react to people who don’t look like us,” Fladger said. “We all have biases — it doesn’t matter what color you are, where you’re from, how you speak — we all have internal biases that we first have to address before we try to fix any problem that our nation is currently facing.”

After the second group of panelists spoke and responded to questions, attendees again broke into groups and discussed the new topics that had come up. Following the final discussions, each panelist gave a closing remark reflecting on the dialogue overall and urging that attendees continue the conversations and advocate for women.

Dr. Lisa Kane Low, associate professor at the School of Nursing, said the conversation inspired her.

“There can be spaces and time where you start to get discouraged and you start to get cynical, and this is the kind of space that inspires you not to go to that ugly place but to be inspired and move forward,” Low said. “I look forward to many of you being the leaders that help us get past the errors of our ways and help us move forward.”

The event was sponsored by the University of Michigan Schools of Nursing, Dentistry, Kinesiology, Public Health and Social Work, College of Pharmacy, Michigan Medicine and Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research.