By Mylika Scatliffe,
AFRO Women’s Health Writer
As we move from Women’s History Month, observed in March, into International Black Women’s History Month, observed in April, the AFRO is honored to highlight women who are making moves on the medical front.
Women are pillars of their family and the community. This month, we salute the women who are making sure that our daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers are healthy, safe and thriving in every aspect of the world. From addressing disparities in health screenings and diagnosis, to advocating for children in the doctor’s office, Black women play a crucial part in the health of our communities.
Read below to learn about a few of the country’s top Black sheroes in white coats.
Millicent Gorham: meet the healthcare advocate on a mission
“Imagine what we can do if we make sure every woman and girl can access high quality, culturally competent health care screening.”
– Millicent Gorham.
Millicent Gorham wants every woman and girl to get good medical care. Having served as the executive director of the National Black Nurses Association for 28 years, health care advocacy has been her life’s work. Today she is the inaugural Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for Women’s Health and Prevention (AWHP).
Founded in October 2022, AWHP is a brand new, non-partisan 501 (c)(4) non-profit organization working to ensure all women and girls have access to high quality preventive health care.
“Women are forgoing crucial screenings for the whole gamut of diseases like breast, colorectal, and cervical cancers and osteoporosis because they can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs. Work and family obligations leave them with limited time to schedule appointments, lack of transportation and sometimes
] just don’t fully understand the insurance coverage available to them,” said Gorham.
AWHP’s mission is to advance policy that drives equitable access and prevents the burden and progression of disease to improve the lives and health of all women and girls, according to a press release announcing Gorham’s being named CEO.
“We want to make sure insurance companies understand that preventive care should be covered and to improve access for women who are uninsured and underinsured, making sure they can get it free or at low cost,” said Gorham. “Many physicians are changing their business models and demanding immediate payment for the entire office visit rather than just a co-pay.”
Gorham said Black women also lag behind when it comes to screenings.
“Three out of four women overall receive cervical cancer screenings, but when you break it down it’s about 81 percent of White women being screened, compared to 65 percent of Black women, 66 percent of Asian women and 68 percent of Hispanic women. Seventy two percent of women are getting cervical screenings if recommended by their primary care doctors but only 34 percent of women will get screened if it is not covered by insurance,” Gorham told the AFRO. “Uninsured and underinsured women are more likely to take a chance on not getting the screenings if there are financial implications such as having to pay the entire cost of an office visit upfront, even if they are insured.”
That’s a big chance to take, with potentially catastrophic results if the early signs of an illness are missed.
“COVID-19 highlighted so many health disparities, but even before that they seemed to escalate for women of color. AWHP wants to make sure women and girls are aware of when they should have these screenings and the resources to do so to begin to turn these disparities around,” said Gorham. “Women are the foundations and pillars of our families and communities.”
Gorham highlighted that health professionals have noticed an earlier onset for some maladies, typically thought to begin later in life.
“Some of these diseases are attacking our women at younger and younger ages, when they are most virulent. When we go down, everybody else goes down, so we want to make sure women can stay up to do what we need to for our families, communities, this nation and indeed the world,” said Gorham.
Dr. Theodora Pinnock develops a plan
“We want to develop a tool for providers and professionals
] that when they see a Black child with delayed language, atypical sensory issues and repetitive behaviors,
] not wait, delay or make referrals for ADHD or bipolar disorder– but to refer them for autism spectrum disorder.”
– Dr. Theodora Pinnock
Dr. Theodora Pinnock has been called to help children with developmental disabilities.
She is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Meharry Medical Group in Nashville, Tn., and this area has always been her passion.
“Developmental and behavioral pediatrics is a pediatric sub-specialty. There are not that many of us in the United States and there are less than 10 of us of color. My best friend growing up was a young lady with Down’s Syndrome, so I always knew this is what I would do. It’s been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember,” said Pinnock.
As a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, Pinnock was trained in assessing and helping children with developmental disabilities to get the correct services. Women like Pinnock are essential given the strong disparities for Black children and autism.
“Black children on average are identified as having autism two to three years later than their counterparts of any other race, and often only happens after they have seen an average of six professionals. This delay in identification and referral for treatment only happens with Black children,” said Pinnock.
“Autism is developmental disability where a child has impairments leading to deficits in social interactions, communication, restrictive interest, repetitive behaviors, and atypical sensory response,” explained Pinnock. “Children with autism spectrum disorder display symptoms such as delayed speech, rocking, spinning, pacing, sensitivity to loud noises, turning lights and water on and off.”
Pinnock said that it is important to understand how these conditions and their symptoms– which appear no different in other races–are treated when they arise in the Black community.
“These behaviors in Black children are attributed to attention deficit hyperactivity, bipolar, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, when they are actually signs of autism spectrum disorder. None of these disorders account for all the symptoms you see with kids with autism,” Pinnock said.
Pinnock has written articles with colleagues at Vanderbilt to address these disparities.
She has been researching the differences in how Black families describe their children once they are able to see a medical provider about their symptoms, and how the professionals responded. They also completed some research with the Simons Foundation, who completed a phone survey with 400 Black families where children were identified as having autism.
“During the survey the families were asked (1) how did the child get identified, (2) if it took several providers to make the identification, (3) what the families told the professionals about their children’s symptoms, and (4) what professionals did in response,” described Pinnock.
“Now, we’re trying to develop a protocol to educate and empower parents to ask providers for the proper referral based on their observations as a parents,” said Pinnock.
Nicole Barnett: the woman taking on maternal health disparities– and not backing down
“Maternal mental health conditions are the biggest challenge women face during pregnancy and after childbirth. Black women carry so much and buy into the myth that we should be able to do it all.”
- Nicole Barnett
Nicole Barnett is a licensed clinical social worker and a perinatal mental health counselor for the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline. After surviving postpartum depression and anxiety following the birth of her third child, Barnett takes great pride in sharing her story in order to help other women, especially Black women.
“Black women are twice as likely as White women to experience maternal mental health conditions but about half as likely to get treatment,” said Barnett.
Maternal mental health conditions include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar illness, substance use disorders– and in rare cases, postpartum psychosis – according to the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance.
After her experience with postpartum depression, one of Barnett’s friends encouraged her to share her story.
“Media portrayals of postpartum depression episode have given a lot of us the wrong idea about postpartum depression. We often think of ‘crazy’ White women killing their babies from what we see in the media,” said Barnett. “Postpartum psychosis is actually very rare, but the number one cause of maternal death in the first-year post-partum is suicide and overdose.”
The fourth trimester is the 12 weeks following the birth of a newborn. A term made popular by pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp in 2002, the fourth trimester primarily focuses on the period of time it takes for a newborn to adjust to the outside world. However, this period of adjustment is equally as important for a mother’s physical and mental health.
“We want women to leave the hospital alive and continue to thrive so they can be around to parent their children,” said Maxine Reed-Vance, deputy director of quality assurance and clinical affairs at Baltimore Healthy Start.
Baltimore Healthy Start community health workers go out into the community knocking on doors, markets, beauty shops, anywhere they might find women to enroll in programs to support and encourage health among mothers and families.
“Health encompasses everything that makes a community thrive,” said Reed-Vance.
Barnett wants new mothers, and family members and sister friends to all be educated about maternal mental health and to be able to recognize the signs that a new mother may be struggling. She says this is particularly crucial because the media often mislabels postpartum psychosis as postpartum depression when reporting on extreme cases like Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children in 2001.
“It’s more common for it to look like depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. A traumatic birth can lead to postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder. The number one cause in the first year post-partum is suicide and overdose. We have to make sure we take care of our mommies in their ‘fourth trimester,’” said Barnett.
“Education is so important. I was taken completely off-guard to spiral into postpartum depression after not experiencing anything like it with my first two children,” Barnett continued. “My experience made me want to make sure that mothers and their circles are armed with the knowledge and to know there are support groups and therapies and all kinds of help available.”