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Health care workforce challenges must be addressed to support Black mothers

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This commentary is from Adtalem Global Education. Blake Simpson is Adtalem’s senior vice president, chief communications and corporate affairs officer. Karen Cox, PhD, RN, FACHE, FAAN, is president of Chamberlain University.

The health care industry has always been at the forefront of change and adaptation. And yet, with nationwide maternity ward closures and staffing shortages on the rise, Black mothers—particularly in rural or low-income areas—have to travel too far to receive the care they need. To make an already difficult situation worse, a recent bill proposing defunding diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in medical schools could inadvertently put Americans’ health and well-being at risk, if passed. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion goes beyond what we see on the surface, and in medicine, assessing a patient’s health—not only by reviewing their chart, but also by understanding their culture, background, and life experiences—may save a life. Diversity isn’t a luxury; it’s a public health imperative.

Today, nearly 6% of U.S. physicians identify as Black or African American, and 6.7% of registered nurses identify as the same. These are statistics that do not reflect the communities they service despite the desperate need for equitable health care—and the Black maternal health crisis is a prime example of that. Postpartum and postnatal care are essential to new mothers and their babies, yet Black women are half as likely as white women to receive the appropriate care, leading to higher rates of complications.

During what should be a happy time, 30% of Black women reported being ignored, scolded, or threatened while receiving maternity care—an experience far less common among white women. And with 44 deaths out of every 100,000 live births, the mortality rate for Black mothers is nearly three times that of white women.   

From Olympic icons such as Serena Williams and the late Tori Bowie to everyday mothers, the undeniable truth remains: The color of a woman’s skin continues to unjustly influence the quality of care she will receive during pregnancy—even with access to elite medical facilities. Research demonstrates that diverse teams lead to better outcomes, and this is where addressing health care disparities through building a diverse health care workforce comes into play.

We must prioritize more diversity and inclusion in our health care teams—not less. This means we must actively recruit and support talent from diverse backgrounds in order to dismantle the systemic inequalities that plague historically marginalized communities. As we shed light on the disparities facing Black mothers in health care, it’s also crucial to empower women to advocate for themselves. To address this, our health care system must continue to create spaces where the voices of expecting mothers are heard, examined, and addressed.

In order to provide equitable and compassionate care for all patients, health care practitioners must acknowledge potential biases and work to address them so that their patients do not suffer. 

When it comes to educating future nurses and physicians, ensuring they are well-informed about bias and the history behind it is critically important. Because nurses are at the bedside more than any other health care professional, they should be aware of their patients’ needs and concerns, and ready to provide optimal care. 

For example, in order to educate and prepare Chamberlain University students for their careers, each campus uses a simulator technology that provides real-life medical scenarios of a diverse group of patients. (Adtalem is the parent organization of Chamberlain.) This innovative technology helps educate on proper bedside manner and assessing patient demographic and background. The goal is to ensure all students are adequately prepared to appropriately interact with patients and ultimately eliminate bias. 

All patients deserve care that eliminates implicit bias, seeks to understand their unique medical needs holistically, and listens without assumptions that lead to indifference. This compassionate approach must be ingrained in health care professionals throughout their training.

By addressing these challenges in the classroom, we can better support students on their journey to becoming health care professionals who can effectively serve patients from diverse backgrounds. And as a society, we must make way for health care practitioners from all walks of life whose insight and compassion, beyond their training, may be what saves a life. 

In essence, by empowering women to advocate for themselves and fostering compassionate care in health care professionals, we can work toward a health care system that includes the accounts of Black mothers among the markers by which health care practitioners measure their success.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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