Good Health Happens When Black Physicians Are On Board
Credit: Amokwei Quarshie

When Dr. Joy Cooper, an OB-GYN at Oakland’s Highland Hospital isn’t conducting examinations or delivering babies, she’s fielding calls from patients through Culture Care, a telemedicine service she created to connect Black women virtually with Black doctors. The idea for the California-based company came about after Cooper and co-founder Dr. Monique Smith recognized that they had easier access to a network of Black medical professionals, including each other, than the average person of color did. When Smith was with child, Cooper, her longtime friend, was instrumental in helping her through complications. “She could literally text me night and day and that made her feel safer during her pregnancy,” Cooper says. When they both had questions about their children’s health, a pediatrician was just a friendly phone call away.

The women realized this type of access to Black doctors was something the African-American community could benefit from, especially given the alarming research findings. Recent studies divulged mind-boggling statistics that confirmed what Cooper already knew, some white medical professionals may not treat our pain appropriately because of their own misguided perceptions. One such study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that about 40% of first-and-second year medical students surveyed believed that “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.” 

The trainees also admitted that they believed that Black people are not as sensitive to pain. Problematic findings on many levels, but especially when it comes to pain management. A sensible person would agree, that when faced with a medical emergency, or even a routine doctor’s visit, the last thing anyone needs is to be faced with a clueless doctor who sees you as less than human.

“I see so much at work in terms of health disparities. Even as a Black physician, I am treated very horribly at work sometimes,” Cooper says. “If I’m being treated this way as a colleague, as a peer, [I can only imagine] how the patients are being treated?”

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It’s not surprising that studies confirm that Black patients often do better when they have a doctor who looks like them. “I’m not saying that there aren’t good white or Asian doctors, but since we came up with this idea for Culture Care in 2018, there’s been so much evidence that proves that Black doctors are actually superior in taking care of Black patients,” says Cooper. She says that a recent study conducted in Oakland found that Black patients were more likely to keep their appointments, comply with taking their medication and get necessary screenings done, when they have a Black doctor. At her last job, she says Black patients were so insistent on finding a doctor who could understand them culturally, that they were willing to make the three-hour trip from Sacramento to Oakland just to see her.

The Culture Care team, comprised of doctors, including a lactation specialist and mental health therapist, have the goal of offering dignified health care, even if it’s over a call. Cooper had been seeing many of her patients solely via virtual medical appointments from the beginning of her career anyway, even before COVID-19 necessitated those types of visits. “I realized the power of telemedicine even before the pandemic.” This was the way the team helped a woman previously diagnosed with cancer. She’d been told by another doctor that a hysterectomy was the only option they would offer her. The woman, who still wanted to have children, turned to Culture Care for advice. “Prescribing her the medications that got her to remission is one of our proudest moments. We received a message that she’s now cancer free,” Cooper says. “People think that there’s not a lot you can do in telemedicine, but there really is.”

To use the service California residents need only click connect on the web site to set up an appointment with one of the vetted physicians, for a fee, ranging from $50 to $150, depending on the length of their consultation. The organization also accepts donations to fund free visits for those who cannot afford the charge. If a situation requires more than a phone call, Culture Care can make quick referrals. “We tap into our own networks to make sure we get people seen and help coordinate care. Sometimes we will literally private message these doctors.”

Culture Care also creates a safe haven for Black doctors, who comprise only 5% of active physicians in the United States, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. “As a part of our grant through Oscar health insurance we are also doing wellness programs for them, and giving out self-care goodies, as well as offering therapy sessions. Cooper laments, “It’s hard being a Black doctor.”