“Issues and Ale” delves into racial disparities in women’s health
by A. David Dahmer
A small group of community members gathered in the upstairs level of Coopers Tavern June 25 to discuss racial disparities in women's health at the first-ever "Issues and Ales" event hosted by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
Erica Nelson, the project director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' Race to Equity project that recently looked at racial disparities between whites and African Americans in a number of measures including health, education, economic well-being, and employment, hosted the panel that also included Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness and Brenda Gonzalez, community marketing equity manager for Group Health Cooperative of South Central.
“There have been many national and statewide reports that indicate that race and ethnicity — particularly for women — play an important role in access to health care as well as the health care system,” Nelson said. “These health disparities are also reflected in their clinical health status, the rate at which women are covered insurance-wise, their actual access to physicians, coping with health care costs, use of preventative services, and the difference of perceptions for women of color in terms of the quality of care that they are receiving when it comes to health care.”
Nelson went on to say that many of the disparities that we see are oftentimes a reflection or an amplification of disparities that exist outside of the traditional health realm.
“So this is what people in the health field refer to as ‘the social determinants of health,’” she said. “In other words, the conditions in which people are born, in which they grow up, in which they live and they work and they age. Income, a person’s environment, access to quality education, food security within a neighborhood, and overall community support actually influences health outcomes.”
Women’s health is not just important from an individual health perspective, Nelson said. It’s important to think about and acknowledge the role that women play in maintaining and caring for families and children, the role they play in the community, and the role they play in the economy.
“Their health is very critical to their children’s health and the community’s health,” Nelson said. “This is especially true when we talk about women of color who oftentimes have health outcomes disproportionately worse than white women.”
The social determinants of health can result in a "layering of disadvantages" for women of color, Nelson said, creating toxic levels of stress that manifest themselves in poor health outcomes.
Peyton-Caire's commitment to improving health outcomes for black women has been inspired and shaped by her personal life experiences with her mother and other women she knew. One day, Roberta Peyton, a single mother who worked 12 to 14 hours every day at a hair salon, was in her car getting ready for a long day of work when she felt funny. She would soon have to have triple-bypass open-heart surgery a day after having a silent, painless heart attack at the age of 48.
“Forty-eight is very young to have a heart attack and over the course of 15 years beyond that a steady decline in health,” Peyton-Caire said of her mother. “By age 63, her heart problems had really advanced. She died in the intensive care unit at the Medical College of Virginia. That was a turning point for me eight years ago. It was a wake-up call. I expected my mother to be here much longer.”
Peyton-Caire's Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness is a project that grew out of the painful loss of her mother. Peyton-Caire is also founder of Black Women's Wellness Day, an annual health summit that aims to inform, inspire, and empower women and girls of African descent to build and sustain healthy, wellness-centered lives. Black Women's Wellness Day was first observed in Bowie, Maryland on Friday, May 22, 2009 in honor of Peyton-Caire's mother and has been celebrated in Madison every year since.
“In my work with the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, we show women what is possible by using personal choice, personal decision, and personal commitment to understand that legacy of my mother and to know that every woman in the room has another story the same as my mother,” Peyton-Caire said. “Life expectancy in our community appears to be capping off at 65 now. African American women are overrepresented in every category of disease and illness. We need to change that.”
Gonzalez said that Latinos are the fastest-growing population in the United States and that by the year 2050 they will be 24 percent of the population. “They are a very young population. They are a diverse population,” Gonzalez said. “In Madison, they are a new immigrant community. Latinos are family-centered and have a hard-working ethic. We have a distrust of some of the institutions because of some of the immigration issues.”
In the health care realm, Latinos face many challenges including a lack of bilingual/bicultural staff at hospitals, lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services, lack of Latino health professionals, lack of knowledge about the system, and lack of insurance and resources.
“Other challenges include the fact that Latinos have higher poverty rates and lower education achievement along with higher drop-out rates. There is a lack of health care information,” Gonzalez said. “We have many of the same issues that African Americans have.”
Gonzalez added that there is a lot of work to be done by organizations to reach out to provide a more diverse workforce in health care. Peyton-Caire agreed. “I feel very passionate about that point,” she said. “It’s critical that conscious efforts are made to recruit diversity in the health care field. You can train skills and you can train cultural competence, but our community has changed and is more diverse and that needs to be reflected in our workforce.”