Black History Month 2023: Ours to tell

As with every month of February, people from across the world come together to celebrate and to raise awareness about the amazing contributions and triumphs of the Black community. Black History Month is a wonderful time of year to appreciate the great achievements of Black and Afro-descendant Canadians in many fields such as the arts, sciences, sports, and many other areas.  Their impact on our culture is undeniable and has only made us better.  

This year’s theme is “Ours to Tell”, which refers to the importance of telling the history, the stories of those who made such a difference in their community and our society but also acknowledging the vibrant spirit that helped them overcome the barriers of discrimination and inequality. Yet barriers still exist, and such is the case when it comes to the Canada’s healthcare system. Black women’s health issues are being overlooked and many women are suffering because of this neglect.  

Thankfully, many organizations are addressing these concerns and are working hard to develop better resources for Black women. Medical societies such as  Black Physicians Association of OntarioBlack Physicians of Canada as well as the SOGC are speaking out and demanding that better quality care be afforded to Black women overall, since they can be more vulnerable to developing certain health problems such as various types of cancer.

Recently, Canadian physicians highlighted the importance of improving breast cancer screenings for Black women. Genetically, these women have a higher risk of developing this cancer than other members of society. They are also at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer than most. Providing more access to higher quality care will not only help save lives but will also allow researchers to gather more important data on how to prevent the onset of certain diseases for future generations.

Physicians across Canada have been sounding the alarm over data collection in the healthcare system for years. This is certainly the case when it comes to tracking the high maternal mortality rates of Canadian Black women. Sadly, there is simply no data to rely on, thus no way to know for sure what are the causes.  Canadian physicians can only rely on statistics from other countries like the US and UK. 

The announcement by the Health Minister to improve data sharing between the provinces is definitely a step in the right direction, yet it still does not address the fundamental problem with our nation’s health infrastructure, which is systemic discrimination.  

In 2019, the National Library of Medicine published a study on systemic racism affecting the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of Black women in Canada as well as other groups. It is clear that a better understanding of the historical bias within our healthcare infrastructure will inevitably lead to better care provision and resources for these individuals. 

These racial barriers have the most impact when it comes to the lack of Black physicians in Canada’s healthcare facilities. If we are to improve the quality of care, we must provide the right care givers and give the proper resources to communities who are most affected. 

We spoke to SOGC member, Dr. Cynthia Maxwell, a Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, who offered her impressions on how to overcome these barriers and improve the quality of care for Black women in our healthcare system: 

“In recognition of Black History and Futures Month for 2023, SOGC could take a leadership role and model true inclusion and promotion of Black Reproductive health. This means looking inward at the representation in its decision-making groups, including its Board, Scientific and Guidelines Committees and more specifically at the strategy to engage Black health leaders and community voices in the national discussions about maternal mortality. With meaningful engagement and with accountability to Black communities, the SOGC could highlight an important opportunity to address longstanding inequities in Black maternal and reproductive health.”   

The SOGC as well as other entities will be doing their part for sure, yet we can’t do it alone. 

In the end, more needs to be done to improve Black women’s health in Canada. Federal subsidies for universities and women’s health hospitals would enable researchers to conduct more in-depth studies on subjects such as maternal mortality, uterine fibroids and anemia, for example. Federal and provincial governments must also learn to cooperate more and engage the medical community.

But most importantly, we cannot let race be a barrier to quality care. Access, research, and support should be our main focus. Medical societies, physicians, and doctors will continue to tell the story of the inequities in our healthcare system and continue to advocate for their patients’ medical rights, no matter their ethnicity or race.

If we all work together, we can make sure the story ends with a positive outcome. 

We would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to Dr. Maxwell for her contribution to this article. 

About Dr. Cynthia Maxwell

Dr. Maxwell is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist and Division Head at Mount Sinai Hospital and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University Toronto. She completed her undergraduate and medical training at Harvard University and her residency in ObGyn at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. She completed her fellowship in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Toronto. Her clinical and research interests center on medical disorders of pregnancy, with a focus on pregnancy affected by severe obesity, malignancy, gastrointestinal and neurological disorders. She also serves as a faculty member for the UHN Congenital Cardiac Centre for Adults Program in the Reproductive Section. Dr. Maxwell became board certified in Obesity Medicine in 2015.

Dr. Maxwell was also the recipient of the 2021 SOGC Regional Achievement Award at the Ontario CME. 

(Pictured: Dr. Cynthia Maxwell and SOGC President R.D. Wilson)