Dr. Kameelah Phillips: The Unique Healthcare Issues Women of Color Face Today
Dr. Kameelah Phillips is a certified obstetrician and gynecologist who’s been involved in numerous organizations concerning women’s health issues from a young age. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in human biology with an emphasis on women’s health and human sexuality, she worked in the San Francisco Department of Public Health in the AIDS office and the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. Through her work and as a Black woman, Phillips has a unique perspective on health issues that specifically affect women of color. We spoke to her about how having access to healthcare frequently changes the direction of women of color’s health and life quality.
What are some sexual health issues relevant to women today?
Dr. Kameelah Phillips: Access is an issue that I think is relevant to everyone, not only cis-gender women, especially with changes in the Supreme Court that have really threatened our access to reproductive health and how we plan our futures, our babies (or not to have babies). I think this is a very critical issue for everyone that has the ability to reproduce
Do some of these health issues affect specifically women of color?
I still think the issue of access is a big issue for women of color since they tend to be on average underemployed or have insurance that doesn’t optimize our reproductive or contraceptive access and we are also a vulnerable population when it comes to work and access, and the impact of a pregnancy can hurt us more than it can affect a white counterpart. Another issue that is impacting women of color is fibroids. Eighty percent of African-American women at some point in their lives may be diagnosed with fibroids and it’s not even on the radar for our national institutes of health in terms of research and figuring out what this is, since it’s an issue that primarily affects African American women.
Since you mentioned specific health issues, what are your thoughts on cervical cancer and maternal mortality? Do you think these affect specifically women of color?
It’s really unfortunate that everything affects women of color. Cervical cancer rates, in general, affect women of color since we tend to be diagnosed at later stages. I had a woman coming to the hospital three weeks ago for bleeding and we examined her and this huge mass came out from her and she just starts pouring blood and I couldn’t even tell her anything other than “this is cancer” and she insisted that she had a recent pap smear and I just couldn’t understand how she went so fast from something that was considered a normal pap smear to be diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer, and what’s frustrating in her case is that she had been to the ER three times before complaining of bleeding and no one ever examined her. She could have found about cancer earlier if someone had listened to her. Cervical cancer is an issue, especially for Latinas. They are a population that has high rates of this. When it comes to maternal mortality, in this country, particularly in the south and even more so in New York City, the rates of women dying in childbirth are comparable to underdeveloped countries and it’s completely unacceptable. In general, we quote the rate from three to five times, an African American woman is most likely to die as related to childbirth in the post-partum period but in New York City, that rate ups to 12 times. It’s completely unacceptable when you think of the impact the death of a person has on the family structure. Women are integral parts of their families. They’re mothers, they’re caregivers, they’re bread-winners, they are the foundation of their families, so when we’re talking about death from labor or death from having a baby, it’s unacceptable that in the United States, where we say we’re “the most powerful nation in the world” that we have women in major cities dying from delivery.
Do you think race and heritage are related to women of color’s health conditions?
I talk a lot about the history of racism in medicine and race, and we know in communities of color, there are fewer hospitals and fewer resources. So yes, your ethnicity and your race do impact your healthcare because it influences your access to it. You might have a hospital in your community but it isn’t as advanced or equipped as a hospital on the Upper East Side.
When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, do you think there’s a way women who don’t have access to healthcare can avoid them?
I don’t know how to answer that, since I would never say “in order to not have a sexually transmitted disease do not have sex”. That’s a responsibility on women and I don’t think that’s where the responsibility lies, that responsibility lies on our local state and federal governments and infrastructure that allows access and STD testing because even with the best-case scenario, assuming women use condoms and t use birth control, STDs still happen. Even with perfect condom use, it doesn’t eliminate the transmission of HPV, so I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the woman to expect that she would never encounter with HPV or an STD, it’s the responsibility of our culture and community to provide access so she can make sure that she is healthy.
Could you share some tips on how to start taking care of our sexual health?
I think one thing that is important is that we find caregivers that we trust so that when we are in our doctor’s office we feel comfortable talking about our activities and with who we have our activities with. This ensures our caregivers or doctors are giving the patients the best care. Sometimes in my office, the patients come and they feel embarrassed to talk about who they are having sex with or how many people they are having sex with but I think it’s important that they can share this information so we can make sure we are addressing all their needs and testing as appropriate. I think it also involves clear communication with our sexual partners in terms of using contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies and in terms of using condoms to be able to minimize the risk as much as possible
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