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Black Women Try To Avert Medical Racism By Searching For Black Doctors

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last month, the CDC declared racism as a serious public health threat. It affects people's health in big ways, like where they live, where they work, whether they can afford treatment. It also affects how doctors talk to patients of color. For Black women, systemic medical racism shows up starkly in childbirth. They are three times more likely to die after giving birth than white women. As a result, many Black women are seeking out Black doctors. From member station WLRN in Miami, Veronica Zaragovia reports.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: When people in South Florida want to find a doctor who is Black, they often end up contacting Adrienne Hibbert.

ADRIENNE HIBBERT: Oh, my gosh. The No. 1 call that I get is a Black OB-GYN.

ZARAGOVIA: Hibbert isn't a doctor. She works in marketing. But she has a website called Black Doctors of South Florida, which she wants to turn into a comprehensive, searchable directory.

HIBBERT: There are a lot of Black networks that are behind the scenes. I don't want them to be behind the scenes, so I'm bringing it to the forefront.

ZARAGOVIA: Hibbert says she got the idea about 15 years ago, when she gave birth to her son. Her obstetrician at the time was white, and the suburban hospital outside of Miami didn't feel welcoming to her as a Black woman pregnant with her first child.

HIBBERT: They had no singular photos of a Black woman and her Black child. I want someone who understands my background. I want someone who understands the foods that I eat. I want someone who understands my upbringing and things that my grandma used to tell me.

ZARAGOVIA: Dr. Nelson Adams is a Black OB-GYN in the Miami area. But he says, here's the problem.

NELSON ADAMS: If every Black woman wanted to have a Black physician, it would be virtually impossible. The numbers are not there.

ZARAGOVIA: Adams says boosting the number of Black doctors alone won't be enough. He is calling on medical schools to teach all students to treat patients as they would want to be treated themselves. At its heart, it's just the golden rule. After George Floyd's death, the University of Miami revamped its entire four-year medical school curriculum to incorporate anti-racism training. And over at Florida Atlantic University, med students are now learning to talk to patients about their entire lives, not just their bodies, with questions like...

SARAH WOOD: Have you ever felt discriminated against?

ZARAGOVIA: That's Dr. Sarah Wood, a dean at Florida Atlantic's med school.

WOOD: Do you feel safe communicating your needs? You know, different things that were questions that we maybe never historically ask but we need to start asking.

ZARAGOVIA: Wood says the medical students start learning about racism in health care during their first year. As they go, they also learn how to communicate with patients from various cultures and backgrounds. These changes come after decades of racist teachings in medical schools across the U.S. Dr. Nelson Adams did his residency in obstetrics and gynecology in Atlanta in the early 1980s. He says they were taught that if a Black woman came in with pain in her pelvis...

ADAMS: The assumption was that it was likely to be a sexually transmitted disease, something we refer to as PID, pelvic inflammatory disease. The typical causes there are gonorrhea and/or chlamydia.

ZARAGOVIA: But if a white woman came in with the same symptoms...

ADAMS: The assumption would be not an STD, but endometriosis.

ZARAGOVIA: Endometriosis is not sexually transmitted, and therefore it was less about the patient's own behavior. That's no longer taught, but Adams says that doctors still bring unconscious racial bias to their patient encounters.

Michelle Wilson is a Black doctor who just graduated from Florida Atlantic's medical school. She benefited from a partnership between the med school and the historically Black university where she did her undergraduate studies.

MICHELLE WILSON: I didn't have a Black doctor growing up. I'm kind of paving a way for other little Black girls that look like me that want to be a doctor. I can let them know, like, it's possible.

ZARAGOVIA: Wilson is going to specialize in family medicine, which will also allow her to deliver babies. She wants to focus her future practice on the needs of Black families.

For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "THE END OF AKIRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.