Kimberly McElroy-Jones remembers an odd pain that took hold of her left side several years ago, stretching from hip to foot. She had been in meetings for hours and for a moment thought the pain might just be from sitting too long in one position.
But she believes that there are “two brains in the body” — in the head and gut. Trusting her gut, she decided to see a doctor.
McElroy-Jones, director of community partnerships for community health at Eskenazi Hospital, recounted her experience in a recent Facebook video webinar organized by the Center of Wellness for Urban Women. Her goal: to show the importance of self-advocacy for Black women in a healthcare setting.
McElroy-Jones said that through her pain, she was intentional in how she communicated her symptoms. The doctor sent her to the emergency room for an ultrasound on her leg.
When the results came back, McElroy-Jones never felt more validation of her gut feeling and her self-advocacy skills. The test showed a blood clot, deep vein thrombosis, in her lower leg — a condition that, if not treated promptly, could have led to potentially fatal clots in her lungs and heart.
“And so in that case, [the doctor] happened to listen to me, but sometimes providers don't. And so you can't ever let anyone's voice take precedence over your voice,” she said to the hundreds of people who watched the live or recorded video.
McElroy-Jones added that as a Black woman working in health care, she recognizes the barriers to care and the systemic racism that lead to health disparities.
Still, Black women can learn how to better advocate for themselves to improve their health outcomes, she said.
Research shows that Black women are the least likely to advocate for themselves in a healthcare setting. The same study also found that when Latina women advocated for themselves, they received better care.
McElroy-Jones offered some suggestions for Black women:
Black women tend to put other people before themselves, and may choose to care for family members before taking care of their own needs. She said more than 80% of Black women are overweight or obese, and she struggles with extra weight that her doctors want her to lose.
“We have to make healthy choices, we have to not only choose to eat right, but we need to choose to live and live a long life, not ... contribute to shortening our own life expectancy, if at all possible.”
Research your symptoms and monitor your body
Before seeing the doctor, do research about your symptoms, as well as the tests or care you may need. And recognize any differences in the way your body feels or responds.
“How many times have you heard the question, ‘How long have you been having symptoms?’ And then you have to pause and think that it started on Monday, Tuesday? Has it been five days? Three days? I know I've done that.”
Knowing your medications and dosage — information that a health care provider might need for proper care — also is important.
Take notes and ask questions
If you don’t understand something a health provider says or aren’t sure about tests that might be needed, speak up and ask questions. Make sure you communicate your symptoms and needs.
Take notes during a provider visit. That makes it easier to follow up with questions, communicate with specialists and take care of yourself after the visit.
“Don’t let the insurance companies dictate your health outcomes.”
Sometimes providers may not order tests because insurance wouldn’t cover it. Although medical bills can be a challenge, you have to be informed and weigh your options. If you need a second opinion, seek one whenever possible.
Genetics play a role
Genetics play a role in some conditions and might require different care for Black women. Ask the question, “How would you manage and treat my condition as a woman of color versus a white woman?” You may get an interesting response, and it may help ensure that your provider is aware of your treatment.
Fill out that survey
Health care organizations review data from surveys, including those that measure patient satisfaction. Fill out surveys whenever possible.
“I sit in leadership meetings, and they're going over those scores, they're looking at providers. If providers have low scores, they're trying to see what's going on.”
Take advantage of free screenings
There are free health screenings for conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, depression at pharmacies and community organizations.
“So if you notice that your blood pressure is high, you probably might need to go get that checked out. And depending on how high it is, you might need to go to the ER right there.”