Black men are the least likely group to have access to or receive adequate healthcare in the United States for a variety of reasons. As a result, black men still have some of the worst healthcare outcomes. How can we approach some of these issues to help black men be healthy or become healthcare professionals? UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura interviewed Dr. Jerome Adams, former US Surgeon General and Dr. William Humphries, Neurosurgeon and healthcare expert about Black Men’s health.
When Ashlee Wisdom launched an early version of her health and wellness website, more than 34,000 users — most of them Black — visited the platform in the first two weeks.
“It wasn’t the most fully functioning platform,” recalled Wisdom, 31. “It was not sexy.”
But the launch was successful. Now, more than a year later, Wisdom’s company, Health in Her Hue, connects Black women and other women of color to culturally sensitive doctors, doulas, nurses and therapists nationally.
As more patients seek culturally competent care — the acknowledgment of a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values during treatment — a new wave of Black tech founders like Wisdom want to help. In the same way Uber Eats and Grubhub revolutionized food delivery, Black tech health startups across the United States want to change how people exercise, how they eat and how they communicate with doctors.
Inspired by their own experiences, plus those of their parents and grandparents, Black entrepreneurs are launching startups that aim to close the cultural gap in health care with technology — and create profitable businesses at the same time.
“One of the most exciting growth opportunities across health innovation is to back underrepresented founders building health companies focusing on underserved markets,” said Unity Stoakes, president and co-founder of StartUp Health, a company headquartered in San Francisco that has invested in a number of health companies led by people of color. He said those leaders have “an essential and powerful understanding of how to solve some of the biggest challenges in health care.”
Platforms created by Black founders for Black people and communities of color continue to blossom because those entrepreneurs often see problems and solutions others might miss. Without diverse voices, entire categories and products simply would not exist in critical areas like health care, business experts say.
“We’re really speaking to a need,” said Kevin Dedner, 45, founder of the mental health startup Hurdle. “Mission alone is not enough. You have to solve a problem.”
Dedner’s company, headquartered in Washington, D.C., pairs patients with therapists who “honor culture instead of ignoring it,” he said. He started the company three years ago, but more people turned to Hurdle after the killing of George Floyd.
In Memphis, Tennessee, Erica Plybeah, 33, is focused on providing transportation. Her company, MedHaul, works with providers and patients to secure low-cost rides to get people to and from their medical appointments. Caregivers, patients or providers fill out a form on MedHaul’s website, then Plybeah’s team helps them schedule a ride.
While MedHaul is for everyone, Plybeah knows people of color, anyone with a low income and residents of rural areas are more likely to face transportation hurdles. She founded the company in 2017 after years of watching her mother take care of her grandmother, who had lost two limbs to Type 2 diabetes. They lived in the Mississippi Delta, where transportation options were scarce.
“For years, my family struggled with our transportation because my mom was her primary transporter,” Plybeah said. “Trying to schedule all of her doctor’s appointments around her work schedule was just a nightmare.”
Plybeah’s company recently received funding from Citi, the banking giant.
“I’m more than proud of her,” said Plybeah’s mother, Annie Steele. “Every step amazes me. What she is doing is going to help people for many years to come.”
Health in Her Hue launched in 2018 with just six doctors on the roster. Two years later, users can download the app at no cost and then scroll through roughly 1,000 providers.
“People are constantly talking about Black women’s poor health outcomes, and that’s where the conversation stops,” said Wisdom, who lives in New York City. “I didn’t see anyone building anything to empower us.”
As her business continues to grow, Wisdom draws inspiration from friends such as Nathan Pelzer, 37, another Black tech founder, who has launched a company in Chicago. Clinify Health works with community health centers and independent clinics in underserved communities. The company analyzes medical and social data to help doctors identify their most at-risk patients and those they haven’t seen in awhile. By focusing on getting those patients preventive care, the medical providers can help them improve their health and avoid trips to the emergency room.
“You can think of Clinify Health as a company that supports triage outside of the emergency room,” Pelzer said.
Pelzer said he started the company by printing out online slideshows he’d made and throwing them in the trunk of his car. “I was driving around the South Side of Chicago, knocking on doors, saying, ‘Hey, this is my idea,’” he said.
Wisdom got her app idea from being so stressed while working a job during grad school that she broke out in hives.
“It was really bad,” Wisdom recalled. “My hand would just swell up, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
The breakouts also baffled her allergist, a white woman, who told Wisdom to take two Allegra every day to manage the discomfort. “I remember thinking if she was a Black woman, I might have shared a bit more about what was going on in my life,” Wisdom said.
The moment inspired her to build an online community. Her idea started off small. She found health content in academic journals, searched for eye-catching photos that would complement the text and then posted the information on Instagram.
Things took off from there. This fall, Health in Her Hue launched “care squads” for users who want to discuss their health with doctors or with other women interested in the same topics.
“The last thing you want to do when you go into the doctor’s office is feel like you have to put on an armor and feel like you have to fight the person or, like, you know, be at odds with the person who’s supposed to be helping you on your health journey,” Wisdom said. “And that’s oftentimes the position that Black people, and largely also Black women, are having to deal with as they’re navigating health care. And it just should not be the case.”
As Black tech founders, Wisdom, Dedner, Pelzer and Plybeah look for ways to support one another by trading advice, chatting about funding and looking for ways to come together. Pelzer and Wisdom met a few years ago as participants in a competition sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. They reconnected at a different event for Black founders of technology companies and decided to help each other.
“We’re each other’s therapists,” Pelzer said. “It can get lonely out here as a Black founder.”
In the future, Plybeah wants to offer transportation services and additional assistance to people caring for aging family members. She also hopes to expand the service to include dropping off customers for grocery and pharmacy runs, workouts at gyms and other basic errands.
Pelzer wants Clinify Health to make tracking health care more fun — possibly with incentives to keep users engaged. He is developing plans and wants to tap into the same competitive energy that fitness companies do.
Wisdom wants to support physicians who seek to improve their relationships with patients of color. The company plans to build a library of resources that professionals could use as a guide.
“We’re not the first people to try to solve these problems,” Dedner said. Yet he and the other three feel the pressure to succeed for more than just themselves and those who came before them.
“I feel like, if I fail, that’s potentially going to shut the door for other Black women who are trying to build in this space,” Wisdom said. “But I try not to think about that too much.”
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In South Florida, when people want to find a Black physician, they often contact Adrienne Hibbert through her website, Black Doctors of South Florida.
“There are a lot of Black networks that are behind the scenes,” said Hibbert, who runs her own marketing firm. “I don’t want them to be behind the scenes, so I’m bringing it to the forefront.”
Hibbert said she got the idea for the website after she gave birth to her son 15 years ago.
Her obstetrician was white, and the suburban hospital outside Miami didn’t feel welcoming to Hibbert as a Black woman pregnant with her first child.
“They had no singular photos of a Black woman and her Black child,” Hibbert said. “I want someone who understands my background. I want someone who understands the foods that I eat. I want someone who understands my upbringing and things that my grandma used to tell me.”
In addition to shared culture and values, a Black physician can offer Black patients a sense of safety, validation and trust. Research has shown that racism, discrimination and unconscious bias continue to plague the U.S. health care system and can cause unequal treatment of racial and ethnic minorities.
Black patients have had their complaints and symptoms dismissed and their pain undertreated, and they are referred less frequently for specialty care. Older Black Americans can still remember when some areas of the country had segregated hospitals and clinics, not to mention profoundly unethical medical failures and abuses, such as the 40-year-long Tuskegee syphilis study.
But even today, Black patients say, too many clinicians can be dismissive, condescending or impatient — which does little to repair trust. Some Black patients would prefer to work with Black doctors for their care, if they could find any.
Hibbert is working on turning her website into a more comprehensive, searchable directory. She said the most sought-after specialist is the obstetrician-gynecologist: “Oh, my gosh, the No. 1 call that I get is [for] a Black OB-GYN.”
For Black women, the impact of systemic racism can show up starkly in childbirth. They are three times as likely to die after giving birth as white women in the United States.
Nelson Adams is a Black OB-GYN at Jackson North Medical Center in North Miami Beach, Florida. He said he understands some women’s preference for a Black OB-GYN but said that can’t be the only answer: “If every Black woman wanted to have a Black physician, it would be virtually impossible. The numbers are not there.”
And it’s also not simply a matter of recruiting more Black students to the fields of medicine and nursing, he said, though that would help. He wants systemic change, which means medical schools need to teach all students — no matter their race, culture or background — to treat patients with respect and dignity. In other words, as they themselves want to be treated.
“The golden rule says, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ so that the heart of a doctor needs to be that kind of heart where you are taking care of folks the way you would want to be treated or want your family treated,” he said.
George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020, and the subsequent wave of protests and activism, prompted corporations, universities, nonprofits and other American institutions to reassess their own history and policies regarding race. Medical schools were no exception. In September, the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine revamped its four-year curriculum to incorporate anti-racism training.
New training also became part of the curriculum at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine in Boca Raton, where students are being taught to ask patients about their history and experiences in addition to their bodily health. The new questions might include: “Have you ever felt discriminated against?” or “Do you feel safe communicating your needs?”
“Different things that were questions that we maybe never historically asked, but we need to start asking,” said Dr. Sarah Wood, senior associate dean for medical education at Florida Atlantic.
The medical students start learning about racism in health care during their first year, and as they go, they also learn how to communicate with patients from various cultures and backgrounds, Wood added.
These changes come after decades of racist teaching in medical schools across the United States. Adams, the OB-GYN, completed his residency in Atlanta in the early 1980s. He recalls being taught that if a Black woman came to the doctor or hospital with pain in her pelvis, “the assumption was that it was likely to be a sexually transmitted disease, something we refer to as PID, pelvic inflammatory disease. The typical causes there are gonorrhea and/or chlamydia.”
This initial assumption was in line with a racist view about Black women’s sexual activity — a presumption that white women were spared. “If the same symptoms were presented by a Caucasian, a white young woman, the assumption would be not an STD, but endometriosis,” Adams said. Endometriosis is not sexually transmitted and is therefore less stigmatizing, less tied to the patient’s behavior.
That diagnostic rule of thumb is no longer taught, but doctors can still bring unconscious racial bias to their patient encounters, Adams said.
While they revamp their curricula, medical schools are also trying to increase diversity within their student ranks. Florida Atlantic’s Schmidt College of Medicine set up, in 2012, a partnership with Florida A&M University, the state’s historically Black university. Undergraduates who want to become doctors are mentored as they complete their pre-med studies, and those who hit certain benchmarks are admitted to Schmidt after they graduate.
Dr. Michelle Wilson took that route and graduated from Schmidt this spring. She’s headed to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia, for a residency in family medicine. Wilson was drawn to that specialty because she can do primary care but also deliver babies. She wants to build a practice focused on the needs of Black families.
“We code-switch. Being able to be that comfortable with your patient, I think it’s important when building a long-term relationship with them,” Wilson said.
“Being able to relax and talk to my patient as if they are family — I think being able to do that really builds on the relationship, especially makes a patient want to come back another time and be like, ‘I really like that doctor.'”
She said she hopes her work will inspire the next generation of Black doctors.
“I didn’t have a Black doctor growing up,” Wilson said. “I’m kind of paving the way for other little Black girls that look like me, that want to be a doctor. I can let them know it’s possible.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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