The severe impact of health disparities on the lives of black women is a real experience. Many of us have experienced the death of our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunts, our sisters and our friends to preventable illnesses. My own grandma, Juliette, lost her life to renal failure. Studies have shown that women of color are disproportionately more likely, than white women, to receive a lower quality of health care even when they have the same insurance status and the same health issues. Why is that? How is that possible? How can our communities better support women of color who experience challenges in accessing quality heath care services, transportation, lack of understanding, preventive care, past experiences with the health care system and the lack of cultural competency in health care? Black women are 7 percent of the United States population but continue to dominate in categories of chronic disease and illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, cancers, stroke, obesity, hypertension, and reproductive disorders. Black women are more likely to die from chronic illnesses, being obese or overweight, or being diagnosed with HIV.
- Black women have higher breast cancer death rates than white women.
- Asian women are less likely than white women to receive a pap smear.
- Hispanic women are more likely than non-Hispanic white women to be diagnosed with cervical cancer at an advanced stage.
- Rates of hospital admissions for lower extremity amputations due to uncontrolled diabetes is higher for Black women than white women.
- New AIDS cases are more prevalent in Black and Hispanic women.
- Black women receive treatment for depression less frequently than white women.
My grandma was diagnosed with diabetes in her mid forties. Her circle of friends would refer to the illness as simply “having the sugar.” At the time of her diagnosis, her internal specialist informed her that as long as she took her pills daily, she would be able to carry on with her typical, daily life. My grandma took her pills faithfully but continued eating the way that she was accustomed to. Soon those daily pills became twice a day insulin shots with constant finger sticks in order to check her glucose for monitoring. Her kidneys began to shut down. Grandma had to go to kidney dialysis three times a week. Her insulin refused to stabilize and she got sicker. I watched my grandmother go from a vibrant, confident, talkative and happy woman to a woman who was withdrawn, unsure, sad and terribly ill. One day, I drove over an hour to come and visit her in the hospital. The doctors found fluid on her lungs and made arrangements for surgery. She had tears in her eyes, I grabbed her hand, we held onto each other for a while without saying anything at all. After minutes pass, she says, “Teetah (her nickname for me), I am so tired and I am scared.” My grandma passed a few weeks later at the age of 62. She was young and had so much life to live. Losing a grandmother or anyone you love is hard. Losing my grandmother to a disease that could have been managed more properly affected me greatly. This shouldn’t happen but surprisingly it does, often. Eliminating health disparities means to concentrate on the social determinants of health that affect the health. Why are women of color losing these battles to chronic illnesses? What is it about the environment that contributes to ability to manage these health conditions? The implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act can play an essential role in eliminating health disparities and improving health in our communities. Our country has been plagued with racial gaps in our health care system. These gaps inspired the many anti-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of the Head Start program, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid and withheld federal funds from segregated hospitals. The Social Security Act increased federal funding for infant and maternal care programs. By the 1980s the health care gap was widening again. In 1985, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services’ task force on Black and Minority Health issued a report that agreed that there were differences between people of color and the white population. In 2002, a report that was commissioned by Congress to study the racial disparities in health care confirmed unequal treatment of minority populations in the health system. I would love to see more women of color contributing to health care discussions and becoming policymakers because we are disproportionately affected by major health crises. It isn’t fair but hope is not lost. The Juliette Health Organization will lead the way of Black women consciously choosing to be healthier and thrive. We will no longer suffer from diseases that are preventable. We will invest in ourselves and we will invest in each other.