The recent Black Lives Matter protests have made the important topic of systemic racism, including racial bias in health care, a national conversation.
One of the most alarming statistics concerns Black maternal and infant mortality rates. According to the National Center of Health Statistics, Black women made up 37 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in 2018. And data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that Black women suffer from pregnancy-related deaths at higher numbers than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts.
However, a soon-to-be-released app called IRTH — as in, “birth” without the “b,” which stands for “bias,” according to its press materials — aims to curb that troubling disparity by helping to provide options and resources helping Black women feel seen and heard, which may save countless lives.
IRTH founder Kimberly Seals Allers, who has also worked as a journalist for publications including Fortune and Essence, has immersed herself in the world of Black maternal and infant health for years by collecting stories of women in several cities, including Philadelphia, Detroit and New Orleans, that document the trauma this phenomenon has caused. With statistics still raising red flags, Seals Allers decided to take things a step further by creating the IRTH app, which would help Black women navigate the dangerous waters of pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum health.
“As I was working in these communities ... it was always the same thing, people were either dying or near dying in birth, people were feeling disrespected about their doctor,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I went to 10 funerals of mothers who’d recently passed ... and it weighed very heavily on me. And I refused to accept this was OK, but as a journalist, I was thinking, ‘We have to put all these stories in one place.’”
Seals Allers was not just on the outside looking in. During the birth of her daughter, she underwent a Cesarean section despite expressing the desire to have a vaginal birth. Though she expressed wanting to breastfeed, she says, the hospital staff gave her daughter formula, and she says she also had to advocate to have her baby with her in her hospital room instead of the nursery. This all happened at the hospital her white girlfriends had recommended based on their positive experiences.
“I really had to get irritated to be heard, which is not a good experience for anybody to have. Of course, in the back of my mind at this time was just all the great things I knew my white girlfriends had said about this place,” she says. “For me, when you have these experiences, because you know so many people are dying, it’s like, when you come out alive, you don’t want to complain. That should not be the bar.”
So with the help of her 16-year-old son, Michael-Jaden, Seals Allers worked to create IRTH, which is designed to be a Yelp-like app that will provide reviews for hospitals and doctors all across the country. Users can find and leave reviews, letting Black women research safer options for birthing, care and hospital selection. Doulas, nurses and partners can also leave reviews about their experiences with a particular doctor or hospital. Black women will then be able to filter through reviews based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, insurance type and more to get opinions relevant to them.
In addition to being an app to help make Black women feel safe, Seals Allers also hopes for IRTH to be a tool of allyship for women of all races, who could use their consumer power to hold hospitals accountable for racial bias, while also shedding light on the places that do treat all their patients with dignity.
Users will also have access to IRTH’s content community, which provides resources for prenatal care, birth, postpartum and up to one year of pediatric care. Through the app, women can also get referrals for therapists who can help them navigate traumatic birthing experiences.
“When we say IRTH is a ‘Yelp-like’ tool, I always like to remind people that this is not a format for a free-form comment per se,” Seals Allers explains. “When you go through the IRTH survey, you are specifically being asked, What happened? Was it dismissiveness about your pain levels? Was it that you asked for a diagnostic test that didn’t happen in a timely fashion? Lack of eye contact? And we keep adding to this list based on what people tell us is happening to them. So really, the goal is that we literally start to decode bias.”
Dr. Jacqueline Nwando Olayiwola, a professor and chair of family medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that Black women face obstacles when it comes to getting the care they need from medical professionals.
“The disparities we see ... are really rooted in structural racism and then the combination of intersectional sexism against women,” she explains. “African-American women tend to receive later care, poorer quality of care. Sometimes they’re denied care when they’re seeking help during pregnancy or not treated with respect by health care providers or social service providers during pregnancy.”
Olayiwola, who also experienced issues during her birthing experience, went on to note that the mental and emotional toll of racism can exacerbate complications many pregnant and postpartum Black women face, like preeclampsia, diabetes, blood clots and other health issues.
Dr. Edward Chien, chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, agrees that racism and racial bias play a role in the disparities between Black maternal and infant mortality and says in order for our society to move forward, these issues need to be addressed.
“The senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other African-Americans have affected us all,” Chien tells Yahoo Life. “There is no place for violence or racial disparity in our world. I suspect people are reaching a limit of how much hate speech we are willing to ignore. I think of it like a pot of water. If you continue to add fuel the pot will eventually boil over. We finally reached that point. To address racism as a public health crisis, we need to harness the collective wisdom of our caregivers, patients and communities.”
Olayiwola predicts that IRTH will definitely make an impact.
“I think we should publicly know, ‘Where am I going to be treated with respect and dignity? Where are my concerns going to be taken seriously? Where are they going to apply the same quality of care to me as they do to other women that come in?’ I want to know where that is,” she says.
Though Seals Allers praises the women of color helping her to bring this app to life, she also wants it to be known that it is not on their shoulders to fix this issue.
“None of these conversations are about what doctors need to do, what hospitals need to do, what nurses need to do. The burden cannot be on women, particularly Black women, to now be told to have all these tools, to have all these things to say, to have all these ideas and questions to save themselves. And this is why IRTH is so important — because it actually creates that institutional accountability.”
Those interested in taking a survey to leave a review can do so at BirthWithoutBias.com (Seals Allers initially intended to collect data on the ground before the pandemic). These reviews will be used to seed the IRTH app for its launch this fall.
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