Speak Up To Reduce Childbirth Complications For Black Women

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As women, we’re taught to advocate for ourselves if something doesn’t feel right about our health. Yet if you’re a black woman, you are less likely to be heard, especially when it comes to maternal health. 

The disparities in maternal deaths among black and white women came to light in the summer of 2018 when high profile women such as Beyoncé and Serena Williams began sharing their own experiences with childbirth and pregnancy complications. 

Stress, Racial Bias and the Maternal Mortality Rate  

Black women in the U.S. are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, 700 women die from pregnancy or delivery complications. There are: 

  • 43.5 deaths per 100,000 live births among black women 
  • 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births among white women 
  • 14.4 deaths per 100,000 live births among women of other races 

Research shows that chronic stress and racial bias — and their impact on the health of African-American women — are at the root of the problem. While social inequities can play a role, they are not the main cause. 

For example, black college-educated women who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to experience complications than white women without a high school degree, says the Psychology Benefits Society, citing maternal mortality data from 2008 to 2012.

“What causes any of these complications is not related to access to care or what is done during the pregnancy,” says David McKenna, MD, maternal-fetal medicine specialist with Perinatal Partners. “It is what happens to you throughout your life and how stress affects your overall health.” 

“What causes any of these complications is not related to access to care or what is done during the pregnancy,” says David McKenna, MD.

The Risks Black Women Face

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When it comes to medical issues, black women often must deal with racial and gender bias. Serena Williams (who has a history of blood clots) initially had to push her medical team to check for blood clots when her breathing became difficult.

Williams’ experience is an example of the risks many black women face, says the National Women’s Health Network, including:

  • Not being taken seriously
  • Not receiving the right treatment
  • Being misdiagnosed

Nearly 65 percent of maternal mortalities are preventable, yet they continue to occur in one of the most developed nations in the world, says the Psychology Benefits Society.

Unconscious racial bias and a lack of diversity in the U.S. medical system are partly to blame, say doctors, researchers and health advocates. “Institutions need to recognize that while there is usually not overt discrimination today, it still exists in implicit forms,” says Dr. McKenna. According to the Psychology Benefits Society:

  • Some health care professionals interpret and respond differently to pain in black vs. white patients.
  • A lack of cultural understanding can lead to inappropriate treatment and feelings of isolation among black mothers.

Cultural, Medical Training Can Create Unbiased Health Care

“Most of the time it is a matter of miscommunication or a simple misunderstanding, but sometimes, something is being done wrong and we need ways to correct it,” says Dr. McKenna.

Health systems can provide fair, unbiased health care by recognizing the range of issues different communities deal with, says the National Women’s Health Network. This can be accomplished by:

  • Training all staff to recognize their implicit biases
  • Using immediate, standardized treatments to respond to specific obstetric complications

If you feel you are not getting the care you need, speak up and ask family members to advocate for you, says Dr. McKenna. Patients should keep asking for what they need until they get it or feel heard. 

Small Steps: Cherish the First Hour
The first hours of life are incredibly special. Start bonding right away by holding your baby skin to skin on your chest after delivery.