Disparity in Women’s Healthcare: A Persisting Problem

New Jersey, our home state, is known for some pretty amazing things. We’re the birthplace of drive-in movies, air-conditioning, and boardwalks. We’re one of the world’s leading producers of delicious fruits like cranberries and blueberries. But we’re also the deadliest American state for Black women receiving maternal healthcare. According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, Black women in New Jersey die at a rate quadruple that of white women and 4.4 times the national average during or after pregnancy, at approximately 132 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Every year, the United States healthcare system fails hundreds of women who die due to pregnancy-related complications. But for women of color especially, maternal morbidity rates are significantly higher, revealing the presence of significant racial disparities in maternal healthcare. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Black women are three to four times more likely to die due to maternal complications than white women. Other minority groups, including Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and subgroups of Hispanic women, also suffer higher maternal morbidity rates than white women, once again revealing how widespread the problem is throughout the United States. 

But why does this happen? Recent studies done by the NCBI show that women from minority groups often receive care from lower-quality hospitals (of which many are the “products of historical segregation,” as  National Public Radio (NPR) calls it) than white women. This is the result of years of redlining and systemic racism in the United States, as the federal government and banks refused to invest in neighborhoods mainly inhabited by minorities. Thus, the hospitals and facilities for minority women who live in these now low-income neighborhoods are not properly equipped to treat pregnancy complications that are otherwise not life-threatening. And Black women are especially affected. In one NCBI simulation set in New York City, it was estimated that if Black women delivered in the same hospitals as white women, about 1000 Black women would avoid morbid events during delivery. But in addition to lower-quality hospitals, implicit bias in healthcare professionals is also a contributing factor to the disparities. In one Princeton University study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers found that white medical students gave less accurate treatment recommendations for Black patients in comparison to white patients. The students also rated the pain of Black patients as less than that of their white counterparts. This suggests that pregnant Black women may not be given proper or adequate treatment for their suffering. 

Recognizing how implicit bias and unequal access to healthcare services affects the maternal mortality rates of Black women and other ethnic minority groups in the United States is vital. We can never claim we have reached equality until we educate ourselves and address this problem, starting with the following possible steps outlined by the Center for American Progress:

  1. Ensure healthcare professionals receive diversity training about implicit bias and racial disparities in maternal morbidity.
  2. Make maternal health services and prenatal care more accessible for women from low-income neighborhoods.
  3. Ensure hospitals that primarily serve women of color have equipment and staff just as proficient as hospitals that primarily serve white women. 

Though high maternal mortality rates can be considered a national problem, the root of the issue resides in our local communities. Modern disparities in women’s healthcare are a horrifying reminder to all of us that the inequalities that plagued the United States a seemingly long time ago are still present today, and as New Jersey residents, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that women of color in our state are not at risk due to their ethnic backgrounds.