To save Black mothers, government health agencies must gain their trust

This Black Maternal Health Week, a new survey indicates that a lack of relevant and relatable healthcare information is a barrier for Black expectant mothers.

Black Maternal Health Week, from April 11 to 17, is a time for the nation to stop and look at the nightmarish situations that so many women of color across the country have to face. As President Biden pointed out in his proclamation for the week, “Black women in America are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.”

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Across all demographics, the United States has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths among all developed countries, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But the picture for Black women is especially dire. A recent study found that childbirth is deadlier for Black families even when they’re rich. All sorts of factors affect this, including, as the New York Times noted, stress from experiencing racism, air pollution in Black communities, inequitable access to paid family leave, racism that Black patients experience in healthcare settings, and more.

My team at M Booth Health and I have looked into another force contributing to these health disparities that endanger the lives of Black moms: a lack of relevant healthcare information. In our new survey, we found that Black mothers are more likely than others to get sick due to a lack of information that they trust. We also dug into why this is and zeroed in on one of the most important sources of healthcare information: government health agencies.

More than half (52%) of Black moms told us that when they look at the materials these agencies offer, they don’t see themselves represented. Less than a quarter (24%) of White moms said the same. This sense of inclusion is essential in reaching people with healthcare information. In our survey, 29% of Black moms said they had ignored some healthcare information in general because it did not feel inclusive of people like them — more than mothers of other ethnicities.

Black moms were also the most likely to say that they don’t believe government health agencies care about people with their backgrounds. Given the long history of racism and sexism in healthcare and government operations, it’s no surprise that many people, especially women of color, are wary. So while Black respondents did say they consider government health websites an important source for people to look to for healthcare information, many also said that they themselves have not done so.

‘Chosen circles’

This does not indicate that Black people are any less likely to seek out healthcare information. In fact, they are especially proactive. Our Pharma Brandemic research showed that Black Americans are more likely than the general population to challenge their doctors, request specific treatments, and more. But they’re turning to other sources, which may or may not be providing accurate information. For example, 42% of Black moms consider online influencers to be important sources of health information to them, compared to 29% of white moms.

Our study found that more than two-thirds (68%) of Black mothers have created personal networks of people and resources that they turn to to make healthcare decisions. They include family members, friends, online influencers, and celebrities in what we’re calling “chosen circles.” 

This is where they often go for medical information and to consider their options. They feel seen, heard, and understood when they reach out to these trusted sources, which include people like them, whom they relate to. And they take the information they learn within these circles seriously.

Growing government engagement

To empower Black moms with crucial healthcare information, government agencies need to design all their efforts with this in mind. 

They need to make information easily available and accessible, whether on websites or apps, pamphlets, mailings, or any other communications. They need to demonstrate an understanding of each community they’re trying to reach. In the survey, almost half (49%) of Black respondents told us health information should be delivered by people with the same background and/or experiences as them (fewer White respondents, 41%, said the same).

Government agencies should also work with people these communities trust — the popular figures and leaders who have gained the respect of members of marginalized communities. Engage with these figures in ways that help to get medical information out in clear, intelligible ways.

Of course, even with all the information at their disposal, Black moms will still face numerous impediments. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a collection of bills from the Black Maternal Health Caucus, could help tackle many of these. But our survey makes clear that information is a crucial — and all too often ignored — part of the solution. 

Tayla Mahmud is executive vice president of Health Equity and Multicultural Strategy with M Booth Health, a health consultancy and communications agency.

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