Sisters’ Guide to Better Health Care
How to help your doctor help you
When my transition into menopause began, I started having health challenges, including bruises that mysteriously appeared on my body, usually after I worked out. I made an appointment with my primary care physician, but I also did some preliminary online research. From the little information I could find, I had a relatively unknown condition called exercise-induced vasculitis that occurs in physically active women over 50. My doctor had no clue, however, and referred me to a specialist.
That turned into a chain of appointments with approximately 10 different specialists. As I sat waiting for more than an hour to meet with yet another one, I was exasperated. When the resident finally addressed me, she asked me if I was Muslim. I’ve become accustomed to this particular line of questioning, so I didn’t give it a second thought when I told her “yes.” She asked some more basic questions before she disappeared for another hour and returned with a white female doctor. She looked over my file and told me my condition was because of my African-American and Middle Eastern heritage.
I was livid. For one, she didn’t spend time with me, conduct any tests or ask in-depth questions before she came up with that diagnosis. Secondly, I don’t have an ounce of Middle Eastern blood, at least not to my knowledge. And besides, my research indicated that exercise-induced vasculitis appears more often in people of European descent. I knew then that I had to become an active participant in establishing a proper diagnosis to literally save my life.
Mine isn’t an isolated case; Black women in general are less likely than other groups to receive quality medical care. “Research has shown that implicit racial bias may cause doctors to spend less time with Black patients, and that Black people receive less effective care,” writes Georgetown fellow MiQuel Davies in a 2018 report about racism in health care. “Providers are also more likely to underestimate the pain of their Black patients, ignore their symptoms or dismiss their complaints.”
In a culture only beginning to recognize that Black women are often ignored and undermined by doctors, it’s imperative that we arm ourselves with research and knowledge to advocate for our own good health. Here are some ways Black women can make the most of their medical care:
Choose a doctor who can relate to you and your concerns.
Use your network to find a physician who has earned good personal references from people you trust. Research their background to confirm their credentials, ratings and reviews. Are they trustworthy? Do they truly listen, give feedback, offer suggestions and provide proper evaluations? If an outside consultation is necessary, make sure your primary care physician refers you to a specialist or surgeon who’s an expert in your particular condition. Your doctor needs to be able to identify with you not only as a patient but as a person.
Make a list of your concerns, questions and symptoms.
Schedule your visit for a time when you won’t be in a hurry. Treat it like a business appointment. Before you go, gather and organize all pertinent information (including allergies, medications/supplements and background information) so you don’t forget anything. Be sure to explain any additional circumstances such as pre-existing conditions and insurance status. You may only have a certain amount of time with the doctor, so optimize your visit by being prepared and getting straight to the point.
Don’t be intimidated. Question everything.
Even though doctors have years of schooling, no one knows your body better than you. Ask questions about tests and screening results, and inquire about options and alternatives when it comes to treatment plans, prescriptions and procedures.
Make sure you’re speaking the same language.
Use your effective communication skills to get on the same page with your doctor. Do they maintain an open dialogue? Do they provide clear, detailed instructions? Do you agree with their assessment? Make sure their process is thorough — including evaluations, diagnoses, tests, exams, screenings, recommendations, procedures and referrals —and if you don’t agree with something, say so.
Get a second opinion.
Don’t stop searching if you keep on hurting. Trust your instincts and go to another physician for backup, especially if you’re not comfortable, making progress or satisfied with the diagnosis, assessment or treatment plan.
Develop partnerships with all of your providers.
Your health care is a team effort with your specialists, as well as their support staff of nurses and nurse practitioners. It’s important to establish a rapport with them. They’re there to assist you, especially in an emergency or when the doctor’s absent, so make sure they have strong interpersonal skills and are equally competent, knowledgeable and familiar with you and your health history.
Hold your doctor accountable.
Claim your power at your appointment and be your own advocate. Make sure your doctor is genuinely addressing your concerns and not being dismissive. Their job is to provide a service to you. Assess your overall experience, from the ease of scheduling appointments to the comfort and cleanliness of the office and the professionalism of the staff. After your appointment, make note if anyone from the office does a follow-up with you. Bottom line: Make sure the doctor meets your expectations and has your best interests at heart.
Mine was an uphill battle because there wasn’t a lot of information available, especially for African-American women. I conducted research and spoke to other women who were experiencing similar symptoms, and I sought alternative, natural and homeopathic remedies to manage my condition. I used to take my doctors’ visits for granted until I dealt with a life-threatening situation. Then I stopped going along and started battling for myself.