Black maternal mortality is one of this country’s cruelest health care disparities, and I am so proud of the many Wellesley alumnae who are working to end it.
Even though more than 80% of maternal deaths are preventable, Black mothers die at a rate three times that of white mothers—largely of cardiovascular conditions. Clearly, much more research needs to be done to help us understand the compounding factors that lead to such poor outcomes in childbirth for Black women. And internists, obstetricians, and cardiologists need to pay much more attention to young women at risk.
We also need to bridge a few other chasms in clinical care. First, many physicians simply don’t know enough about women’s health and the ways that the biological variable of sex influences the prevalence and presentation of diseases. Second, many physicians consider women unreliable reporters of their own symptoms—and this is especially true for women of color.
At the opening celebration for our Science Complex in October, Dr. Dana Im ’10, who leads quality and safety for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, described the problem this way: “Our goal is to provide high quality care to all of our patients, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation—and other factors we hope we are blind to, but we really are not. This is why we need leaders in medicine to represent our patients—especially those who are underrepresented in our community.”
At a minimum, we need many more leaders in science and medicine who are attuned to the meaningful differences that lead to disparities in health outcomes, whether the biological factor of sex or social factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender. That is one reason why Wellesley’s commitment to inclusive excellence in STEM education is so important: We are a major contributor nationwide of women who earn advanced degrees in science and medicine. In addition, over the past 10 years, we have succeeded in doubling the percentage of STEM degrees we award to underrepresented minority students.