When Jane, a young Black mother, arrived at the hospital for a prenatal appointment with her three children in tow, she was greeted with persistent questioning and a call to child protection services.
Jane, a single mother at the time, had asked a nurse for some Jell-O cups to keep her young children from getting antsy during the wait. But instead of a jiggly dessert, the nurse returned with a police officer, both demanding to know why Jane had not fed her children before the visit and accusing her of neglect.
Jane, not her real name, says this wasn’t her first experience with racism in the hospital: “Sometimes it’s so scary, you don’t trust yourself to fully open up to these doctors who are supposed to be there to help you. A lot of it may be anxiety. But I believe it’s the systemic racism that builds that anxiety into a straight-up fear and ultimately (results in) a refusal to seek help that most people really need.”
Jane’s experience is not uncommon. According to a Toronto study published in 2021: “Racialized health-care users reported ‘race’/ethnic based discrimination or everyday racism as largely contributing to the challenges experienced when receiving health care; statements rated high for action/change include ‘when the health-care provider does not complete a proper assessment,’ ‘when the patient’s symptoms are ignored or not taken seriously,’ and ‘when the health-care provider belittles or talks down to the patient.’ ”
To tackle what she says is “a life and death situation for our communities,” Roberta Timothy, a psychotherapist and assistant professor at University of Toronto, is launching the first master’s program in Black health in North America, which will commence this fall.
Black Canadians have poorer health outcomes and are less likely to obtain health-care services compared to many other groups. Additionally, social factors such as poverty, unemployment, racism and discrimination, increase the risk of illness and interfere with timely and unprejudiced treatment. Timothy’s program hopes to increase awareness of these disparities, enhance diversity in the health professions, and work toward eliminating discrimination and the adverse effects on health care.
This is a life and death situation for our communities.
The two-year program consists of six core courses that will include socio-historical overviews of Black health; chronic diseases and reproductive health; decolonizing theory and methods in Black health research; transnational Black health policy and practice; and injustices in the health-care system. Timothy is eager to include ancestral teaching to ensure community involvement on courses that require retrospective outlooks, allowing students to learn from history and first-hand experience.
“This is a program that’s really to support the wellness, healing and promotion on Black health in Canada and globally,” says Timothy, who is the program lead.
Onyenyechukwu (Onye) Nnorom, who is an associate director at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, leads the Black Health Curriculum and is past president of the Black Physicians Association of Ontario, says that, “As a medical trainee, if you’re not aware of the health issues that affect the Black Canadian population when you enter the health-care system, then you are at risk of providing suboptimal care.”
Timothy has received “a lot of supportive feedback, I mean overwhelming, globally” and is enthusiastic of the future of the program and its effect on the health-care system.
She says she hopes more programs will be built in conjunction with hers and within Black communities. “I would love to see more programs in the field of Black health. However, they also need to be done in a way that creates consciousness and hopefully has activism in it to dismantle these systems of violence and create something else. Creating real social change and social justice”
With additional funding, Timothy says she would like to make anti-Black racism lectures available to all students who eventually will be providing medical care.
“Your engagement, your care, that alone … can change somebody’s life,” says Timothy.