When Chantina Wilson was six months pregnant, she started having abdominal pain. She made an appointment with her doctor, a white man, who told her she was having Braxton-Hicks contractions.
But this wasn’t Wilson’s first pregnancy. She knew what the contractions felt like. Yet her doctor ignored her protests and sent her home with prescription Tylenol.
“He didn’t even touch me,” Wilson said. “He just assumed I was having contractions.”
But she wasn’t. It was appendicitis, which Wilson only discovered after going to Stroger Hospital, where she was treated by another OB-GYN – a black woman.
“I will never forget this lady,” Wilson said. “She came in and she was like, ‘The pain you’re describing is not twitching. You’re showing your appendix. I ended up having emergency surgery at that time because’ she told me that I could die if I didn’t.
Black patients across the country can tell similar stories. Many report that the symptoms and pain are ignored or misdiagnosed. For pregnant black women, abuse dramatically increases the risk of death.
In Illinois, black mothers died of pregnancy-related issues six times more than white mothers in 2020, according to a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health. And a 2021 CDPH report found that black infants are almost three times more likely to die in their first year than non-black infants.
Wilson is battling those statistics as a patient care navigator with MyOwnDoctor, a black-owned holistic telehealth service.
While telehealth services have grown in recent years to provide everything from advice to prescription deliveries, MyOwnDoctor focuses on “culturally relevant” care.
The service connects patients of color with black and Latino doctors, who often have a better understanding of their patients’ lives and experiences. These physicians work in primary care, specialty care, and mental health care.
“It has a platform that allows you to connect with a doctor, a nonprofit, and a faith-based organization,” said Cheryle Jackson, CEO of MyOwnDoctor. “We know how important this is for improving health outcomes, especially for black and brown populations who really bear the brunt of health disparities.”
With 130 providers, the telehealth service offers virtual visits, care coordination, remote patient monitoring and education.
Some telehealth providers have physical offices to treat patients in person if needed. If a telehealth provider doesn’t have an office, they can refer patients to like-minded physicians.
MyOwnDoctor was established in 2016 as a telemedicine software company, licensing software to other entities. In 2020, the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the black community prompted the company to venture into healthcare delivery.
Others attempt to address racial inequities in health care, including Health in Her Hue and Poppy Seed Health. Both offer telehealth services, although Poppy Seed focuses on helping women with pregnancy-related issues.
Black Americans are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, being hospitalized for the virus, and dying from it than white Americans. Reasons for this include reduced access to testing, high-quality healthcare and vaccines, and higher rates of other chronic conditions, such as heart disease or high blood pressure.
“The pandemic…has forced everyone to face a stark truth,” Jackson said. “Health care in this country is neither equal nor accessible, or the results are the same for everyone. And it really depends on where you live and what color your skin is.
Inequity in health care also stems from implicit biases and institutionalized racism.
A 2016 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a “substantial number” of white medical students and residents have “false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrates that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and the accuracy of treatment recommendations.”
These beliefs included black patients with thicker skin and less sensitive nerve endings.
A 2019 report found practitioners fall prey to these same biases — as well as beliefs that black patients are more susceptible to addiction.
“Very early when you’re in medical school, you understand how the healthcare system works,” said Dr. Rachel Villanueva, OB-GYN and member of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest professional organization. of the country representing African American physicians and patients.
“You see the marginalization of patients from the clinic, either by race or socioeconomic status, and people are treated differently,” she added. “It’s a system that indoctrinates and educates future physicians not to necessarily respect a clinic patient.”
Villanueva said it’s no surprise there’s been a lack of trust between communities of color and the healthcare system. The system has done little to build that trust.
“I’ve actually seen exponential growth in the number of patients of color coming to my office who are looking for a provider of color, someone they think will listen to them,” Villanueva said. “I hear a lot (from patients) that this is the first time I felt like someone actually explained what was going on or even listened to what I was saying. »
It’s something Dr. Christal West, OB-GYN and medical director of MyOwnDoctor for Women’s Health, has also come across.
Often, “my patients who came to seek care from a black woman because they are” black women, West said. “They feel like they’ll be more comfortable, we’re more sensitive and really understand their experience.”
For West, culturally appropriate care means getting to know his patients. This involves letting them talk about their needs and wants first.
Next, she focuses more on nurturing than just being bossy. This means bringing documentation to the patient for them to review, asking if they have any further questions.
Now, MyOwnDoctor has partnered with Aetna Better Health of Illinois, hoping to expand services and access to care for the entire state. They also launched the Partners for Heart & Health referral program.
The program refers MyOwnDoctor patients to partner organizations and nonprofits, and those organizations refer members in need of care to MyOwnDoctor.
Another effort to tackle inequalities in health care is underway on the South Side.
Jeanine Valrie Logan, a registered nurse midwife, wants to create the Chicago South Side Birth Center. Her vision is of a facility run by black midwives and staffed with nurses, a collaborating physician, doulas and educators.
This desire is born from experience. Logan was a doula for 11 years, but when she was pregnant with her first daughter, she and her husband struggled to find black doulas in Chicago.
“Then we had a really hard time finding not just black midwives, in particular, but midwives of color who were providing out-of-hospital care,” she added.
Since then, Logan has worked with other birth advocates to pass HB 738, which expands access to birth centers across the city.
Thanks to the non-profit organization Chicago Beyond, Logan can now focus full time on building this birthing center.
Chicago Beyond finds groups, community leaders and research opportunities to invest in. She chose Logan for her latest leadership venture. As a result, she now receives salary and benefits, as well as professional support.
Although she hasn’t decided on a location yet, Logan hopes to open next fall.
“Right now, on the southeast side, there are only three hospitals that have OB units, and that’s a huge geographic area that has limited access to services,” Logan said. “People deserve autonomy and fair and safe access to health care with providers who look like them.”
Part of having equitable health care at the center, Logan said, means providing the resources she uses, explaining what to expect when patients arrive and even if she thinks they will need a snack while they wait.
“I envision a birth center where anyone can come in, feel safe to talk about anything,” she said. “We want to be a place where everything that matters to the immediate community matters to us. We want to be a staple in the community. »
Villanueva isn’t surprised by the growth of culturally relevant providers.
“It’s well documented that people of color have better health outcomes when cared for by providers of color,” she said. “They have better experiences and there is more adherence to treatment plans.”
There is still a lot to do.
“To maintain our board certification, we are required to complete certain continuing medical education, credits, keep up to date with all new technologies and issues in our field,” Villanueva said.
This should include tackling bias in health care, she said.
“I think we have a generation of individuals who grew up very differently from me. They could have grown up in a time of segregation, so… I’m not saying everyone is racist, but they certainly come with different prejudices. .