Q&A with GP Dr Omon Imohi, founder of Black Women in Health

Black Women in Health (BWIH) is a national non-profit organisation with the aim of passionately promoting the principles of diversity and equality. Their goal is to empower Black female healthcare professionals to achieve maximum professional and personal development.

Dr Omon Imohi, an NHS GP and founder of BWIH, sat down with Hysterical Women to talk about her own experiences, why she started BWIH, and what she hopes the network can achieve – both for Black healthcare professionals and their Black patients.

Why did you start Black Women in Health?

I came from the Caribbean, where I did my medical degree, and came over to the UK to train to work in the NHS. When I got here I realised the training was not tailored to people like me and our needs – I sometimes felt I was overlooked in favour of other trainees, and I often wished I had some kind of mentor who had come from the same background as me and had the same experiences as me. The group initially started out with just me and three friends, all women of Nigerian origin, over Blackberry and then later WhatsApp, to share our experiences and support each other.

Then, in January 2019, I had the idea to open it up. It started out as a WhatsApp group of 4, then 10, then 100, and we now have around 400 members. We now host meet-ups, webinars and training, and we held our second conference in March. Our numbers actually doubled during the COVID19 lockdown because so many Black healthcare professionals were looking for support, wanting to talk about what was going on, issues with PPE, and so on.

What kind of barriers and biases do Black women face in their medical careers?

We are stereotyped, so people see us as less competent, less qualified. If we speak up we are stereotyped as an ‘angry black woman’, people assume we don’t speak English, or they mock our accents. There is already gender bias and inequality in medicine, before you bring in race, so as a Black woman you are doubly disadvantaged and discriminated against.

One woman told me about her experience of working in a hospital, where she was sat writing up some notes and a nurse asked a colleague if there was a doctor available. She pointed out this Black junior doctor, and the nurse said, “no, a real doctor.” Things like that are really hurtful, and I just think if there are healthcare professionals who will treat their Black colleagues like that, how will they speak to Black patients?

As a GP yourself, do you ever hear from Black female patients who’ve faced bias and mistreatment from other doctors?

I’ve heard many stories from Black women saying their doctor dismissed them, they don’t take them seriously, they don’t believe in their pain, or they think we’re stronger somehow than other patients. In my own experience, I remember seeing a GP for the contraceptive pill, and she didn’t ask me any of the questions you’re supposed to ask, or take my blood pressure. She didn’t even look up from her computer at me, so it’s worrying to think she may be treating other patients that way too.

I know of Black women who have died because their pain was dismissed and their symptoms were not taken seriously. The thing is actually – particularly for patients from African countries, where you have to pay to have really good quality healthcare – they don’t overuse the system because they’re used to a system where you don’t go to the doctor unless it’s really urgent. So if a Black woman tells you something’s wrong, there’s really something wrong. We all know our own bodies better than our doctor, so if someone’s saying to you that they’re in pain, as a doctor you really need to listen. I can’t feel my patients’ pain, I just have to believe them.

What can all patients, healthcare staff and policy makers do to address health inequalities and biases in medicine?

Firstly we need policies around not just diversity but also inclusion. The NHS is already very diverse – there are healthcare professionals working here from all over the world – but when you look at the leadership positions, there isn’t diversity of inclusion. The people at the top, who make the policies, are not diverse, so they’re not necessarily considering the needs of Black healthcare professionals or patients.

An example of this is around mental healthcare. There is still huge stigma around mental illness in Black communities, so we need different approaches to mental healthcare that are culturally sensitive, not the ‘one size fits all’ approach we currently have. But without Black professionals in leadership positions, these cultural issues, and health conditions that disproportionately affect Black communities, are not prioritised or considered. It can’t just be about a tick box diversity policy, you have to actually include people in decision making.

As healthcare professionals, we also all need to be challenging discrimination where we see it. There are times in my career when I haven’t, and I regret that, but we need to challenge it when it happens so that people can learn and things can change.

One of the other big problems is that Black healthcare professionals are more likely than their white colleagues to be referred to the GMC, and when that happens they’re more likely to face disciplinary action and be struck off. This creates a lot of stress and anxiety among Black doctors and other healthcare professionals, and that stress has a knock-on effect on their productivity, their work, and the care their patients receive. It’s a really vicious cycle, so diversity and inclusion policies can help to improve things for everyone.

For patients, it’s important to question and challenge healthcare professionals who aren’t taking you seriously, and be prepared to ask for a second opinion if you feel you’re being fobbed off.

You can find out more and get involved with Black Women in Health online. 

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