Statistically speaking, most multiple sclerosis (MS) healthcare providers may never see an African-American patient. Yet the number of African-Americans living with MS is on the rise due to a growing awareness of the chronic illness in both the medical and Black communities.
This means that the likelihood of encountering a Black patient will increase. This change in the MS population is happening against the existing backdrop of a population of MS professionals who are mostly White. Communication is key to creating a positive relationship between those providing healthcare and those receiving it. This is doubly true when an African-American patient and a White provider are working together.
Without a doubt, Dr. W is the best primary care physician I have ever had. His name was just one on a list of doctors who were accepting new patients, took my insurance, and was located fairly close. I probably read one of those short profiles that only include the basic information. I am sure at the end there was something about his hobbies and family. Regardless of why I chose him, I did not know what to expect, and obviously, neither did he.
The first act he did to build trust was to simply share more information about himself and to ask about me. He did not start our first appointment by jumping straight into medical concerns. He began by briefly connecting with me person-to-person. In telling his story, Dr. W made it clear that he had not walked in my shoes and that my life experiences as a Black woman were beyond his own. He wanted to know me beyond the pathology.
It was after that when he moved on to my concerns about my health that he startled me. Dr. W admitted that he was not an all-around expert. He did not have all of the answers. He wanted to team with me on my way to wellness. It was this honesty that made the greatest inroads with me. Dr. W. understood that he did not understand all of my concerns. Previous physicians and other healthcare professionals either made assumptions about me or ignored the fact that I am African-American.
It is not a fine line to walk to acknowledge the obvious. There is nothing wrong with admitting ignorance. What is wrong is to blithely provide care without knowing the patient, including cultural and/or racial differences. A patient who is initially standoffish may be reacting out of fear, disappointment, exhaustion, doubt, or all of the above. Approaching Black patients with patience, compassion, and a modicum of humility will go a long way in developing the type of relationship needed to be a good teammate. Dr. W is my proof positive that connecting with a caring, skilled healthcare provider is possible regardless of circumstances or differences.
Acknowledgment and patience are keys to helping build a team environment that leads to a healthier patient.