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Representation Matters: Why Black Women Benefit from a Black Physician
Every April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services observes National Minority Health Month to highlight the importance of improving the health of racial and ethnic minority communities. This national observance is an opportunity to highlight the work of Dr. Melanie Belt, one of three Black obstetrician/gynecologists in Austin, Texas. Black women and other women of color drive for hours to be cared for by Dr. Belt, who recently joined Texas Children’s Hospital.
When LaShasta Bell learned she was expecting her second child, she knew she wanted a Black obstetrician. She’d read the national data on Black women’s maternal health and was determined to improve her odds of a healthy pregnancy.
There was just one problem.
Her husband, Kevin, had been recruited from Houston to work in Austin, and they found themselves in a city with limited options — so limited that there were only three choices. Dr. Melanie Belt came highly recommended, and they decided to reach out.
Dr. Melanie Belt recently joined the Texas Children’s Hospital team and is one of only three Black obstetrician/gynecologists in the Austin area. For years, she has cared for Black women and other women of color who drive for hours to see her because they, like LaShasta, know the importance of having a doctor who looks like them.
“With my first pregnancy, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” LaShasta said. “I didn’t know any of the data on Black maternal health and mortality. I didn’t know the benefits of having a physician who looked like me. It didn’t matter that the visits to Dr. Belt’s office required more than an hour of driving. Having her take care of me and our baby was a priority.”
A life or death difference
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women. Multiple factors contribute to these disparities, including underlying chronic conditions, variations in quality healthcare, structural racism and implicit bias.
When LaShasta says she was unaware of the data during her first pregnancy, that is partly because it was so long ago. LaShasta was pregnant with her first child 17 years prior to her second pregnancy. After the birth of their first child, Kevin Jr., she and her husband believed they were finished having children; and Kevin made the decision to have a vasectomy. But years later, when they wanted to expand their family, he underwent a reversal.
“A few years after the reversal, we got pregnant and were ecstatic,” said the now mother of two. “We were also determined to use our new knowledge so that we could guarantee the best outcome.”
Trust is the key
Dr. Belt, who has a diverse patient population, said she provides care to all of her patients at the same level and in the same way. But the way patients interact with her is different depending on their life experiences.
“I think Black women are eager to see a Black physician because they feel more comfortable asking certain questions and expressing concerns that they feel I will understand,” Dr. Belt said. “It goes beyond the desire for a good doctor. It’s about trust.”
She added that the majority of Black women today are aware of the health disparities and the statistics when it comes to their health — not just while they are pregnant, but throughout the course of their lives. “Black women are on alert and are trying to do their part to mitigate the risks.”
The best outcome possible
LaShasta’s son, London, was born healthy at 10 lbs, 1 oz, making the Bells a happy family of four.
The new mom — for the second time — developed a great relationship with Dr. Belt during her pregnancy, and she remained grateful to her during her follow-up care.
“The day after I was released from the hospital, my body didn’t feel right,” LaShasta said. “It felt like my blood pressure was higher than it should have been and I knew I needed to tell someone. I didn’t want to bother Dr. Belt because it was after-hours, so I called my doula. My doula called Dr. Belt, and without hesitation she told me to go to the hospital immediately. One of Dr. Belt’s colleagues said that was a good call because they didn’t want me to be the next headline.”
LaShasta went on to say that Dr. Belt brought so much value to her pregnancy. “She was there every step of the way, and through every decision. I can’t say it enough. It’s a game-changer for us as Black women to have a Black doctor. There is an extra level of understanding, connection and trust.”
Texas Children’s Hospital North Austin Campus will open in February 2024. It will be a state-of-the-art, $485 million, top-tier hospital for children and women led by the finest pediatric and women’s specialists in the nation. Dr. Belt will office nearby and deliver babies at this new hospital. Dr. Belt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.