Earlier this month, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana to attend conferences hosted by the National Medical Association and the National Association of Black Journalists. As a former journalist, a health equity advocate, and a person who is deeply invested in positive outcomes for communities of color and other marginalized groups, I was grateful to engage in meaningful dialogue around health disparities and health equity in a region plagued by diverse health challenges that impact overlooked rural and urban communities.
While these were two very different conferences, both fostered important conversations around issues that disproportionately impact Black communities, such as HIV prevention and treatment, maternal morbidity, mental health, and reproductive care. Whether you’re a Black doctor or a Black journalist, these topics are important to address and hard to ignore. Prominent health care leaders and journalists spoke at length about the importance of awareness and the need to amplify solutions to our most pressing health care problems. After a week of education and inspiration, I returned to Washington with two important takeaways.
Legacy institutions still matter.
The National Medical Association (NMA) is the oldest and largest organization representing African-American physicians and health professionals in the United States. Founded in 1895, the NMA is the collective voice of more than 30,000 Black doctors and the patients they serve.
The institution was founded in the years after Reconstruction was violently rolled back across the South, an era when the majority of Black Americans were disenfranchised, denied education, and neglected in the health care system. The NMA was created for Black health professionals who found it necessary to establish their own medical societies and hospitals. The institution’s primary focus then and now is to empower communities of color and the medically underserved.
“There is no one else who's been working on health equity since 1895. When George Floyd died, we saw a resurgence in health equity initiatives. But when you talk about consistency, we have never wavered,” said Dr. Yolanda Lawson, MD, FACOG, National Medical Association President and Founder of MadeWell OBGYN.
Founded in 1975, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) has been fighting for a voice in our nation’s newsrooms ever since. Forty years ago, Black journalists comprised less than 2% of people in the media industry. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, only 8% of journalists identified as Hispanic, 6% as Black and only 3% as Asian. While progress has been made, our nation's newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white.
Healthcare is the headline.
While at NABJ’s conference, I learned that newsrooms across the country have recently embraced a concept known as “solution journalism.” This approach to news encourages reporters to bring public attention to remedies to systemic inequity instead of simply amplifying the complexity and severity of the problem itself.
Endless barriers impede the average Black person from attaining a good bill of health. Social determinants of health account for 80-90% of health outcomes. Low-wage workers, living in low-income neighborhoods, frequently lack the physical assets needed to support good health. This results in significant place-based inequities with profound consequences. These communities experience limited access to transportation, reduced access to jobs, poorer air and water quality, higher crime, and lack of reliable health care coverage. Lack of adequate insurance coupled with food and pharmacy deserts often produce poor health outcomes and familiar news headlines.
Black journalists have long brought public attention to these unjust realities, and the Black medical community is innovating responses.
At the NMA conference, I was moved and inspired to hear about the work of Dr. Biree Andemariam, founder of the New England Sickle Cell Institute at UConn Health. Seeing an unmet need in her community, Dr. Andemariam built a team, overcame resource obstacles, and created a space for sickle cell patients that employs hematologists, pain management specialists, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, researchers, and patient navigators who assist with the medical and emotional needs of patients with sickle cell disease. For a disease that almost exclusively impacts communities of color, Dr. Andemariam developed a collaborative, comprehensive new model for care.
In order for these kinds of solutions to spread, their stories need publicity. Solutions-based journalism focuses not just on what may be working, but also how and why it appears to be working, and helps spread the word and make the case for inequity remedies like Dr. Andemariam’s work.
While attending these two very different conferences, unrelated in purpose but united by audience, I learned that there are brilliant minds in both the medical and media space doing incredible work to bring about change. Black doctors are healing the bodies and Black journalists are feeding our minds.