Minority Women Meet to Discuss Health, Prevention

The Department of Health and Human Services just wrapped up its Minority Women's Health Summit. Wanda Jones, head of the agency's Office of Women's Health, talks about the pressing health issues facing women of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, the Mocha Moms on how busy moms can stay healthy.

But first, many women busy with responsibilities at home, in the office and the community may not devote enough time to looking after themselves. That can be especially true for women of color.

Today, TELL ME MORE begins a series on health issues affecting minority women. We're drawing on several topics covered by the recent Minority Women's Health Summit held here in Washington.

To begin, we're joined by Wanda Jones. She heads the Office of Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Her office hosted the summit. And Wanda Jones joins me now in our studios. Welcome.

Dr. WANDA JONES (Director, Office of Women's Health, Department of Health and Human Services): Thank you, Michel. Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Why is it necessary to have a summit that focuses specifically on the health of women of color?

Dr. JONES: In Women's Health, we are great believers in reaching women where they are and in helping individual women understand what a range of health issues might mean for them, the preventive strategies, the treatments, the outcomes. So we want to create a safe space in which minority women particularly can come, learn the very latest in science, in successful strategies in community innovation that's really tailored for them.

MARTIN: So color blindedness is not necessarily the ideal when it comes to providing health care.

Dr. JONES: No, indeed, it's not. It is only one frame in which the culturally competent health care provider should be approaching the disease or condition or the reason the patient comes in for the visit today.

MARTIN: The summit was three days. You had dozens of sessions. Well, what were some of the things that you - some of the issues that you were trying to address at the summit?

Dr. JONES: We had an incredible array of issues, I think something like 50 different breakout sessions that covered the gamut from specific diseases and conditions like autoimmune diseases. Lupus is a good example there, diabetes, obesity, HIV/AIDS. Violence itself is not viewed by many as a health condition, but it has tremendous impact on health and your capacity to achieve good health if you're living in a violent home environment or community environment. Also, success stories in coalition building, in strengthening communities, in helping communities raise their voices and stand in a breach where a particular health need has come to a community's attention.

And we can develop a cross-cultural approach that really is not one size fits all. It's a message that everyone understands. And through the channels of delivery, through the means by which we approach communities, because the communities have polled us, have informed that process that allows us with finite resources to conserve those resources and, you know, reach everyone across a number of cultures.

But in some cases where language is a particular barrier, insurance status, living in an urban area versus a rural area where transportation is highly unreliable, these are all circumstances in which we might have to get very, very specific because the barriers that women in these circumstances face may be way different.

MARTIN: Your office has worked, I think, for a while in a - one particular issue I wanted to ask you about today, which is the communication between women of color and medical providers. And I wanted to ask you what were some of the challenges that may exist when these two groups try to communicate with each other. That's kind of a, sort of a basic thing. And you actually - you were telling us earlier that this is actually more complicated than a lot of people understand it to be.

Dr. JONES: Well, it really is. When the bulk of the health professions, particularly physicians, are white and yet people accessing that physician's services may not be white, you bring to that encounter whoever you are. You bring a specific set of beliefs and values and perceptions about yourself, about your health, about your community that affect how you are going to engage in that discussion with that physician. In many communities, the physician is put almost on a pedestal: the white coat, the education is respected. And it's considered disrespectful by some cultures to have someone - the patient - look that physician in the eye. In some cultures, they are very stoic about pain.

MARTIN: So that the doctor may not be getting the full story and may not be tapping into what that patient really has available to help him or her heal?

Ms. JONES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Okay. But how do you get away from, you know, on the one hand, you want providers to be culturally competent. On the other hand, how do you keep that from turning into stereotyping? Which is, oh, here's an African-American woman. I know she's not going to look me in the eye, and I got to have to assume, you know, she's experiencing domestic violence. Do you know what I mean? You can just see where this could - on the one hand, you want people to be sensitive. On the other hand, you don't want a person to necessarily treat every person with preconceived notions. Where is the line?

Ms. JONES: It's a challenging endeavor for a physician to, in a very data-driven, very evidence-based practice of medicine, to not conclude based on, you know, the largest number, the stereotype. It is a real challenge for the physicians, for anybody in any sort of an encounter. But it really, fundamentally comes down to listening and to respect for the individual.

And I think everybody in the caring professions has this somewhere in them that sometimes, it's almost trained out of you, and yet to try to bring that back to the surface, to recognize and to value the humanity in every individual -whether they come to you in care, whether you see them on the street - is the absolute first step.

MARTIN: So I saw that there was a lot of research being presented. There was a lot of research presented at the summit as part of what you're trying to do to refine the understandings that caregivers have about specific communities and how values may play out in health effects, how circumstances could play out in health effects and how to deal with that, to sort of add data to that kind of general impression.

Ms. JONES: Absolutely. Add data, but perhaps more importantly, add success stories.

MARTIN: Wanda Jones leads the Office on Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. She joined me here in the studio. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. JONES: Thank you, Michel.

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